Pete Buttigieg: Betting The Farm In Iowa
Despite Iowa’s similarities to Indiana, caucus voters in the Hawkeye State have routinely rejected Hoosier presidential hopefuls. Will Pete Buttigieg be the candidate who finally breaks through there next month?
On a cold Saturday night in November, Pete Buttigieg leaned into his Midwestern roots. The South Bend mayor and Democratic presidential candidate was on the first leg of a tour of northern Iowa. In Decorah, a 7,594-person town, more than 1,000 people had squeezed into the high school gym for a town hall with the candidate. Addressing the people of Winneshiek County, a farming community that flipped from Barack Obama in 2012 to Donald Trump in 2016, he focused on agriculture. Answering a question about climate change, Buttigieg insisted that farmers have a critical role to play in staving off global warming, citing cover crops—beans or buckwheat, for example—grown to prevent weeds and enrich soil quality.
“I was super impressed with what he knew about farming,” Bridgette Hensley, 51, a psychologist, said after the town hall. Deb Tekippe, a 63-year-old retired nurse, agreed. “He’s one of us,” she said.
The next day, Buttigieg hurtled west aboard his blue and yellow campaign bus. As the vehicle passed cornfield after cornfield, he recited for reporters a portion of “When the Frost is on the Punkin,” the famous ode to harvest by the Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley. In Britt—population 1,973—Buttigieg swung by Mary Jo’s Hobo House, a breakfast joint, and asked farmers there about their crops. In Mason City, he toured an ethanol plant and mentioned that it reminded him of the one back in South Bend.
Patty Judge, a former Democratic lieutenant governor of Iowa who accompanied Buttigieg at some campaign stops, says his Midwestern-ness is playing well in the state. “He’s this down-to-earth, friendly person who people relate to, but he’s also an incredibly bright person with lots of ideas,” she says. “There’s a lot of agriculture in both Indiana and Iowa, working folks in both states, and he’s resonating here because of that.”
J.D. Scholten, an Iowa Democratic congressional candidate running against Republican Steve King, remembers marveling at the turnout. “One of the things I don’t think has been talked about enough is that he had people from all of Iowa’s 99 counties there,” he says. “You go to some of these counties that have not only been politically written off, but economically written off, and he has organizers there.”
“He’s very well organized there,” says Joe Trippi, a Democratic political strategist who has been involved in several Iowa caucuses dating back to the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s 1980 presidential campaign, including Howard Dean’s insurgent 2004 effort. “So can he win? If he wins, I think that can erase a lot of doubts.”
Trippi says that Iowa could play a similar role for Buttigieg that it did for Obama in 2008. “The whole thing holding Obama back at that point was, Is America ready for a black president? There were a lot of people who liked Obama but thought, I don’t think so. We’re not ready yet. When he won Iowa, it lifted many of those doubts. In a lot of ways, Pete [as the first gay president] could be like that.”
Scholten, the Iowa congressional candidate, says Buttigieg is in an enviable position entering the final sprint. “A lot of people question the jump from being a Midwest mayor to being president, but if you’re a campaign that started from scratch in January, and you’re where he is now, you have a chance to win,” he says.