Pete Buttigieg Won The Iowa State Fair. Can He Win The Caucuses?

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg campaigns at the Iowa State Fair.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg campaigns at the Iowa State Fair.

Photo by Adam Wren

DES MOINES—When he arrived here by public transportation Tuesday, Pete Buttigieg had the Iowa State Fair all to himself, with none of his 20 or so fellow Democratic candidates inside the fairground’s 445 acres. He used the next four hours to woo voters and eat “practically everything.”

But when it comes to winning the state’s Iowa Caucuses next February, Buttigieg faces a much more crowded landscape. And he’s getting a relatively late start in the state compared to other top-tier contenders such as former Vice President Joe Biden, who boasts 75 staffers and 12 offices throughout the state. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris are building strong organizations on the ground, too.

Still, in the last two weeks, Buttigieg has used his $25 million second-quarter fundraising haul to bring his staff total to 60 in the state, according to the Associated Press. His campaign manager, Mike Schmuhl, recently parachuted into the state for a four-day trip to build out Buttigieg’s operation here. According to the Des Moines Register’s candidate tracker, Buttigieg isn’t among the top 10 Democrats who have visited the state the most this cycle, ranking 15th even though he’s put on 41 events over 24 days. Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris, and Bernie Sanders rank above him, though Biden has only held 26 events over 14 days. Unlike Harris, Buttigieg also isn’t up on the air yet with television ads or splashy endorsements.

But on Tuesday, Buttigieg, the first Hoosier since Evan Bayh in 2007 to campaign in Iowa, did his best to make his own mark here, beginning a three-day campaign swing across the state. He rolled out a policy plan for rural America.

At the fair, Buttigieg drew a large Tuesday-afternoon crowd to the Des Moines Register Soap Box, a fair tradition where presidential candidates get 20 minutes to deliver a shortened version of their stump speech and answer questions from voters.

“We are building a fantastic team on the ground here in Iowa that wants to get to know you, mobilize our supporters, get the message out far and wide—and with your help, we will not go on his show and play his game, we will change the channel completely,” Buttigieg said, referring to President Donald Trump. “Can I look to you for help in doing that?”

Later, he cast his kernel in WHO-TV’s kitschy and unscientific corn-kernel voting, a ritual more indicative of general enthusiasm for a particular candidate than it is an accurate measure of their standing in the state.

By Wednesday, Buttigeg ranked second behind Biden, with 17 percent of the vote to Biden’s 23 percent.

After leaving the State Fair, Buttigieg headed to southeast Iowa. There, six of the seven counties he’ll visit flipped from supporting Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016.

It was Buttigieg’s 11th trip to the year, and sixth in as many weeks—a sign that the 2020 race for the presidency is heating up. Buttigieg has five months to win over the hearts of Iowa voters, and appears to have a stomach for the long haul. After ordering a root-beer float on Tuesday, he quipped to reporters: “More pork tenderloin for me.”