Iowa voters echo concerns about Buttigieg's ability to win beyond the caucuses

Even if he gets a significant boost from Iowa, the last weeks of his campaign in the state have clarified challenges he faces going forward.
Image: Pete Buttigieg answers questions from voters during a town hall event in Boone, Iowa, on Jan. 27, 2020.
Pete Buttigieg at a town hall event in Boone, Iowa, on Jan. 27, 2020.Win McNamee / Getty Images

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By Vaughn Hillyard, Priscilla Thompson and Matt Wargo

DES MOINES, Iowa — Pete Buttigieg, once a long-shot presidential candidate, could come out of Iowa on Monday with a strong caucus showing, even a victory.

But even if that does happen, the last weeks of his campaign in the state have clarified the challenges he'll face beyond this first nominating contest, molding perceptions that have prevented the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, from pulling away from the still-crowded Democratic presidential field.

Touting his Midwestern roots, Buttigieg, 38, still faces persistent doubts in Iowa about electability. His lack of support among black voters in particular has stirred skepticism even among this state’s overwhelmingly white electorate.

Beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, Buttigieg’s path to the party’s nomination faces a potential wall in states that are far more diverse.

But because he needs first to perform well in Iowa and New Hampshire, Buttigieg has pressed an electability message in the waning days before the caucuses, targeting a greater cross-section of the American electorate, rather than a Democratic Party-focused message, in an attempt to carve away at his primary opponents and evoke passion from the party's most ardently progressive activists.

“This campaign is calling out to Democrats, calling out to independents, and finding an awful lot of what I like to call future former Republicans,” Buttigieg said to a crowd in Osceola on Tuesday.

That message is the crux of his late strategy to pull off a caucus victory that would lend credence to his campaign sales pitch that he is the best equipped Democrat to win back Midwestern states from Trump.

But it is not clear the extent to which that message will galvanize enough voters to his corner at caucus sites around the state.

“We think, unfortunately, even though Iowa has taken Pete to our heart and think he’s wonderful, I'm just not sure — and I think his stances are great — just am not sure that the country will go for him yet,” Carol Hill, a Christmas tree farmer from Minburn, Iowa, told NBC News, mentioning concerns over Buttigieg's youth and skepticism about whether enough fellow Iowans are wholly ready to embrace a gay man as president.

At the Iowa State Fair in late summer, Hill said she placed a corn kernel in a glass jar bearing former Vice President Joe Biden’s name at a mock poll set up along the fair route. Then in late fall, as Buttigieg rose in the Iowa polls, Hill said that she was leaning toward him because it appeared that he had the best potential to take the party mantle as its nominee.

But this week, Hill said she intends to fall back to, and caucus for, Biden.

“I think at this point that Biden still has the best chance at beating Trump of any of them, and that’s the main reason we’re after him,” Hill said.

At a Buttigieg town hall in Vinton on Monday, Troy Powell, 47, asked Buttigieg about his lack of black support: “What can you tell us to make us more confident that a vote for you on caucus night is going to continue all the way through and you have what it takes to make it to the end?”

Buttigieg highlighted the support he has among black leaders in South Bend and his need to prove to black voters that he can win — much like then-candidate Barack Obama's 2008 Iowa victory helped spur belief in his candidacy. He also pointed out that in this 2020 cycle “even African American candidates struggled to get out of single digits.”

“That’s such a core constituency of the Democratic Party that if he's not going to do well with that he has absolutely no chance,” Powell told NBC News following the event, though noting Buttigieg’s answer was enough for him to justify caucusing for him on Monday.

With Democratic support still spread across multiple candidates, Buttigieg is calculating that he must lure an influx of Republican and independent voters to take part in the Democratic caucuses. It’s a risky gamble.

In 2016, per caucus exit polling, just 2 percent of Iowa caucusgoers who took part in the Democratic caucus identified as Republicans. Among the 20 percent of caucusgoers who identified as independents, Bernie Sanders won 69 percent, with 26 percent for Hillary Clinton.

Lisa Adams, a former teacher in Norwalk, said her Republican husband would “absolutely” vote for Buttigieg over Trump in a hypothetical November matchup. But Adams said he would not change party registrations to take part in the Democratic caucus on Monday. “We got to go baby steps,” Adams said.

Even among those moderate and conservative voters who intend to take part in the Democratic contest, Buttigieg has not consolidated a convincing majority.

“If the world was full of people like me, Pete would be the winner,” said Tracy Lepeltak of West Des Moines, a retired school counselor and former Republican, who calls herself a moderate. “But the world isn’t full of people like me who can think on their own and aren’t swayed by one political view versus another.”

Lapeltak named Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Biden as her top three picks. But because she believes Biden is the best equipped of those three to also galvanize the country’s more liberal Democrats, she will likely stick with Biden on caucus night.

Another challenge for Buttigieg’s candidacy — one shaped on generational contrasts — is Sanders’ durability in the race. According to an Iowa poll in early January, Sanders garnered 36 percent of support among likely Democratic caucusgoers under the age of 35. Buttigieg, on the other hand, captured only 13 percent of that support.

And a fair share of caucusgoers who backed Hillary Clinton in her narrow 2016 caucus victory are not necessarily supporting this year’s more-ideologically moderate candidates.

Marilyn White, a retired nurse in Bettendorf, said Buttigieg and Sanders were her final two choices because of their “principles” but is now settled on Sanders because “he’s got more experience.”

Kari Blomberg, a Coralville Democrat who attended Biden and Buttigieg rallies on Monday evening, said that, as of now, she will most likely caucus for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whom she believes has the best chance of beating Trump.

“Pete is exciting and young, but I don’t know if he’s a viable candidate,” Blomberg said.

Still, in places like Carroll County, in the rural northwest where just 800 voters took part in the 2016 Democratic caucus, Buttigieg drew about 300 Iowans to an event on a recent Saturday night. The county went by a two-to-one margin for Clinton over Sanders in the caucus before Trump won it handily by 32 percent over Clinton in the general election.

“I think that where we’re at in the western part of the state, which is decidedly more conservative than the eastern part of the state. There are people that find some of his more moderate views ... more palatable — that he’s probably going to have a good showing of people who can’t go for a Bernie or Elizabeth,” said Sonia Cuvelier-Walsh, a local teacher who said she will caucus for Buttiigieg despite personally holding more liberal views.

The Buttigieg team contends it has a robust Iowa infrastructure positioned to win over waffling Democrats on caucus night in places like Carroll. Buttigieg’s organization has indeed been strong enough to turn out the type of activist support long considered key to caucus vitality — noticeable at Democratic Party staples like the Polk County Steak Fry in September and the Liberty and Justice Dinner in November. The campaign has 180 paid staffers on the ground, plus volunteer leaders assigned to organize support in each of the neighborhoods around the state’s 1,681 caucus locations.

Buttigieg has never won a statewide race. He lost by 25 percent in his only attempt, a run for Indiana’s state treasurer in 2010.

On caucus night, Buttigieg will have a shot at making the case that he can overcome the shortcomings of his candidacy and emerge as the best equipped candidate to challenge President Trump in the Midwest.