Photo by Tony Valainis
An autumn wind whipped between buildings in South Bend on Thursday night, as hundreds of supporters gathered for a Pete for America South Bend office opening, where Pete Buttigieg showed up in a homecoming appearance that marked a new season his campaign.
Fresh off raising $19.1 million dollars this quarter, Buttigieg this week put a new focus on his Indiana operation, hiring a state director and appealing to South Bend supporters to travel to Iowa and make calls on his behalf in the coming months. “It’s very likely that the nomination contest will still be pretty intense and undecided when the primary happens here in Indiana,” Buttigieg said in a gaggle with reporters after the event.
Before he opened his office Thursday, he called Indianapolis Monthly from Las Vegas, where he was about to participate in the March For Our Lives forum on gun policy. In the exclusive interview, Buttigieg talked about the impeachment inquiry, batted down rumors he would run for governor in Indiana, and explained why Indiana might play an outsized role in the nominating contested next year.
Adam Wren: Why open this Pete for America community office in South Bend?
Pete Buttigieg: I think it’s a great opportunity to engage the local support that we have. Also we have a lot of folks who will visit South Bend because they’re drawn to the campaign and can’t really accommodate them at headquarters but want to make sure there’s a place that’s a touchpoint for them to be involved and sign up to volunteer.
Wren: There’s chatter in Indiana among Republicans that if things do not go well for you at the Iowa Caucuses next February, you may drop out of the presidential race and run for governor here. Some Indiana Democrats are pining for that. Is that something you’ve pondered?
Buttigieg: It’s really not. You know, we have some fantastic Democrats who are stepping up to run for governor and I think voters are going to have terrific options. We’ve got our sights set on exactly one office. My goal is not to be holding some office. My goal is to offer what I have to really set the country in a different direction. Indiana needs a lot of changes too, but it’s a very different than what I believe our country needs and what I think I can offer in the presidential race.
Wren: You speak often of the need for us to “change the channel” from the 24/7 Trump show, and yet with developments this week and last around the House impeachment inquiry, that seems more difficult than ever. How do you avoid getting your candidacy getting lost in it all?
Buttigieg: Well, there’s no question that we’re going to have to speak to the constitutional process that’s taking place, it’s urgent. It’s important. It’s troubling. But it also should, at least for our part, have very little to do with partisan politics. This is something that if the Republican party were to reunite with their conscience is, I think would become a bipartisan issue. Now, I don’t have any illusions about that, but I think it’s just a separate conversation from the presidential election. Because this presidential campaign is not just about how to defeat Donald Trump, it’s about what’s going to happen in America after the Trump presidency. By definition, we’re competing to be the first Democratic president post Trump era and the work that needs to be done there to heal the country and to fix the problems that created the conditions for him to rise in the first place. Those are going to be with us no matter what.
Wren: Given the impeachment inquiry, there’s a scenario in which you may run against Vice President Mike Pence. What would that matchup look like for you?
Buttigieg: Well, obviously he would be a very different figure than the current president, but has also been part of the same divisiveness and harmful enterprise that I think he will need to answer for in the event that he does become president. I think the contrasts are clear: If anything, the policy contrasts will become even clearer, because he is such an ideologically far-right figure where the president is I think less driven by ideology and more by a certain kind of personal style. But the better we’re doing it, communicating our message, the easier it will be to understand and support no matter who it is we’re running against.
Wren: Pundits have zeroed in on the gap between your gangbusters fundraising and your sometimes single-digit support in the polls. Is that a function of your relatively low name identification?
Buttigieg: That’s certainly a big part of it. I think the most meaningful number in the polls is how few voters say that they’ve really made up their mind. I think in the last Iowa numbers was one out of five voters were sure of how they were going to vote. If you look historically the person who went on to win the nomination, it’s almost never the person with a big lead in the polls at this stage of the year before. The work for us is to focus on a ground game, which is what all that fundraising is for and to focus on a message that has allowed us to advance past the first 20 or so of our competitors and leaves us now with a few bigger hills to climb.
Wren: You hired an Indiana state director, Arielle Brandy, this week. She’s the former regional field director in 2016 for the Indiana Democratic Party and the Democratic board member of voter registration for St. Joseph County, as well as an alum of Hoosier Women Forward the Democratic leadership training program. Is that a signal that you’re planning for the long haul and to still be around for the state’s primary election next May?
Buttigieg: It is. Part of it of course is that we have a special relationship to the state of Indiana no matter what. But part of it’s also recognizing that with so many candidates it’s unlikely that anyone will clinch the nomination very early in the spring. I think that makes Indiana very relevant. We want to make sure that we’re gearing up for that early on.
Wren: Your state director went to college at Indiana State University, which happens to be in Vigo County, which is the nation’s most accurate bellwether during presidential elections. Does that bode well for you?
Buttigieg: Well, I think it’ll give her a good intuition about what what’s at stake, as well as her experience in South Bend and St. Joseph County. I do think even though Indiana as a whole is viewed as a very Red State, we also get a response to different kinds of leadership, including notably having voted for President Obama in 2008 and Vigo County is, in particular, an example of how a lot of voters where we come from are not tribal ideological partisan warriors, but really looking for a leader to speak to them.
The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.