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Pete Buttigieg's next challenge: Turning celebrity into a national campaign

The South Bend mayor is starting to put together a campaign operation for the Democratic primary but is starting out well behind rivals.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg announces his presidential candidacy on April 14, 2019 in South Bend, Indiana.Joshua Lott / AFP - Getty Images

DES MOINES, Iowa — Pete Buttigieg has enthusiasm, newfound popularity and the curiosity of his party on his side. Now he just has to build a presidential campaign.

The Democratic candidate has surged into third place in Iowa, New Hampshire and even some national polls with less of a campaign structure to back him up than almost any candidate in recent memory. Riding a wave of momentum, he has not been buoyed by a full staff of campaign veterans and field organizers, but by an aggressive media strategy involving dozens of interviews with almost anyone willing to give the Midwestern mayor a few minutes to make his case on television or in newsprint.

But a media strategy, critical as it is for presidential candidates, can only take them so far. And as Buttigieg returns Tuesday to Iowa — the first state to hold a primary contest next year — his small but growing team is working feverishly to build out a national structure that can compete with some 17 other candidates and navigating the byzantine complexities of running a state-by-state race for the White House.

Unlike his well-funded and experienced rivals, many of whom have been developing political organizations and donor bases for years or decades, Buttigieg has no campaign offices in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina or any of the other early voting states. There are no field staffers on the ground enlisting volunteers and collecting data on potential supporters — just a modest headquarters in South Bend, Indiana, a town of barely 100,000 people, and an even smaller satellite office in Chicago.

By comparison, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has a staff of 40 in Iowa alone, while Sen. Cory Booker now has 15 organizers there, with plans to expand to 25 in the coming weeks, campaign aides said. Sen. Bernie Sanders boasts a volunteer force 20,000-strong in the state.

Buttigieg and his team know that to be a viable presidential candidate, that must change — and that it can, thanks to the striking $7 million he raised in the first three months of 2019, when most of the country was just being introduced to him. He raised another $1 million in four hours on Sunday, when he formally kicked off his campaign in South Bend, Indiana.

“We're snapping into action,” Buttigieg told NBC News during a recent campaign stop in Concord, New Hampshire. “We have to.”

He said he was bringing in a “much bigger team” including “boots on the ground in the early states” and a larger headquarters operation to sustain the campaign into the summer and fall. Still, he added, “We're always going to work to be a lean and scrappy operation. That's just our style.”

“You’ve just got to get muscle memory of people who’ve seen it before — ballot access in early states, organizing in different constituencies," he said in an interview on "The Rachel Maddow Show" Monday night. "And there are other things that I think the playbook really is changing.”

Spearheading Buttigieg’s campaign in the early stages has been campaign manager Mike Schmuhl, a high school friend who served as his mayoral chief of staff. Schmuhl, who was a year behind the 37-year-old mayor in school, ran Buttigieg’s campaign for mayor and a congressional campaign for former Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly, but does not have experience at the top levels of a presidential or even a statewide campaign.

Buttigieg’s communications guru, Lis Smith, does have extensive presidential campaign experience, including as rapid response director for former President Obama’s 2012 re-election and deputy campaign manager in 2016 for former Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley.

In recent months, Buttigieg has also brought on finance director Marcus Switzer, who worked on the Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns, as well as a national press secretary and a rapid response director.

Buttigieg campaign officials said dozens of new hires are expected in the next few weeks, bringing the current team of 30 to roughly 50 by the end of April. Although the campaign already has an operations team and an “advance” team, which arranges logistics for campaign stops, those will be augmented by state-based leadership teams in five early states, including Iowa and California, with more to come later.

“We're constantly going to be trying to strike a balance between sort of traditional best practices in political campaigns with something new, fresh, disruptive technology that will set us apart from the rest of the field,” said Schmuhl, the campaign manager in an NBC News interview.

The campaign website currently lists job postings for communications coordinators and political directors in Iowa and New Hampshire, data and analytics experts, finance, scheduling and accounting aides, and outreach coordinators for South Carolina and Nevada. The headquarters will remain in South Bend, officials said.

But there’s a potential disadvantage to the fact that Buttigieg’s sudden ascent and late formal entrance into the race, which came after the primary field had mostly been set and his competitors had already been campaigning for months. Much of the top campaign talent in the Democratic Party have already committed to other candidates, leaving Buttigieg fewer options to choose from — a challenge former Vice President Joe Biden may also face if he gets into the race.

Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist who worked for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said the risk for Buttigieg in having too lean a staff and organization is that a once-promising contender can abruptly collapse, particularly if the candidate errs and has insufficient tools to back him or her up. He pointed to Democrat Howard Dean, whose 2004 campaign appeared to be rocketing upward until it crashed down to earth after a notorious “scream” by the candidate at an Iowa rally.

“You can be an inspiring candidate and lose by a few percentage points. You can have a great field operation, but an uninspiring candidate will lose,” said Williams, now at the firm Targeted Victory. “Organizing, literature drops, phone banks, door knocks -- that ground game will get you that final two or three points in a race.”

Schmuhl brushed off concerns that it was too late to staff up with top-tier political hands. He said since Buttigieg launched his exploratory committee in January, more than 7,000 people have submitted resumes. Even more have been streaming in since his formal announcement Sunday.

“There's been a lot of people that we've hired over the last few weeks who said they were going to sit out 2020,” Schmuhl said. “But they're jumping right in, because Pete’s their candidate.”