Campaigns

“Flip the switch:” Stuck in the polls, Buttigieg plans to beef up campaign staff

Pete Buttigieg, who has dazzled Democratic donors but plateaued in the polls, plans to accelerate his presidential campaign in the coming weeks, with a concerted push to transform his fundraising success into fastened support in the early nominating states.

The South Bend mayor’s campaign is expected to announce in the coming days a flurry of staffing hires and new office openings in Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as a director of African-American engagement, who will be crucial to outreach in South Carolina and other southern states that follow.

“Labor Day for us is really going to be a turning point,” said Mike Schmuhl, Buttigieg’s campaign manager. “It’s when we’ll flip the switch.”

By the end of September, the campaign will have 100 staffers in Iowa alone, according to Schmuhl, meaning Buttigieg with have one of the largest 2020 teams there. His Labor Day visit marks his eighth to Iowa since July, signaling a more intense commitment to the state.

The Iowa-centric surge will be accompanied by a gradual increase in paid advertising as Buttigieg works to become as familiar to voters as his longer-established rivals. Internally, the campaign is dubbing the blitz the “Pete Wave.”

The first phases of the Buttigieg campaign focused on introducing the 37-year-old to the country, marshalling resources and assembling a national campaign infrastructure. In the fall, the campaign will seek to amplify a sharper message that asks voters to commit to turning the page to a young leader outside of Washington.

“It’s not enough to be well-liked. You’ve got to get people invested in him to be president,” said Lis Smith, Buttigieg’s senior communications adviser. But the campaign sees opportunity in the fact that approximately a quarter of Democrats still don’t know Buttigieg.

“People’s votes are not locked in,” Smith added. “Now’s the time we’ve got to start converting.”

While Buttigieg raised a staggering $31 million during the first half of the year and has earned largely laudatory media coverage, even some of his ardent supporters wonder whether he can raise his game to compete with progressive firebrands Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and frontrunner Joe Biden.

Buttigieg is currently polling at 5 percent nationally and around 8 percent in Iowa, the caucus

state which opens the nominating process in five months.

“I think he’s got an uphill struggle. He’s up against three well-known and boisterous candidates,” said Karen Pontremoli, a former chief of staff to Ross Perot who gave the maximum donation to Buttigieg during a Martha’s Vineyard fundraiser last spring. “He’s small in stature and a very soft spoken guy as it is, so he gets completely drowned out by Warren and Biden and Sanders.”

Buttigieg campaign aides view the coming cluster of high-profile events — Wednesday’s CNN climate forum, this weekend’s New Hampshire Democratic Party state convention, and the third debate next week in Houston — as venues for their candidate to ratchet up the urgency of his message that will lean harder into his outsider credentials.

“Do we want to hand over the reins to just another Washington politician?,” asked Schmuhl. “As the field winnows, outside of Andrew Yang, Pete’s the one person in the top tier who doesn’t have D.C experience. And I think that’s a good thing.”

Schmuhl also telegraphed that while Buttigieg represents a return to civility to politics, he also realizes the other component crucial to success is “having a little sharper elbow to compete in this primary and then take the fight to Donald Trump.”

Buttigieg hasn’t been shy confronting President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and members of the administration during the 2020 race. His campaign recently unveiled Facebook advertisements targeting Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who Buttigieg said is “actively undermining the very purpose of the department.”

One substantive area of contrast the campaign sees as a potential winner is Buttigieg’s Medicare for “all who want it,” a proposal that would invite people to buy into a government option while preserving private insurance. Buttigieg believes the Medicare for All approach championed by Sanders and Warren to be unrealistic.

“Yes the mayor can throw a punch and we’re ready to take on anyone,” Schmuhl said. “We owe it to the American people to draw those contrasts.”

But how far Buttigieg is willing to go to make distinctions with his Democratic opponents remains to be seen. Out on the trail, he frames his message around unifying ideas that move the country forward, rather than the ideologically-seeded “left versus center” construct. He has steered clear of the skirmishes that developed between his Democratic rivals during the summer and avoided direct confrontations during the first two debates.

“None of the candidates who’ve gone out of their way to manufacture a moment in the debates have seen a long-term gain from them,” Smith said. “Sucker-punching another Democrat at a debate has limited value. That’s not something Pete is interested in doing.”

And yet Buttigieg’s willingness to engage his top tier opponents may send a message to his supporters, many of whom need convincing that he’s committed to winning in 2020 and not just building a brand for the future.

“It might not be this time,” said Trent Norris, a San Francisco-based attorney and Buttigieg donor. “I think there’s a consensus he’s going to be around a long time on the national stage.”

“He’s nice, but who the hell is he? … He’ll have his time. There’s no urgency to make Pete Buttigieg president,” said Jeff Silberman, the president of a California real estate company who gave the maximum contribution to Buttigieg but explained the factors holding him back.

“Odds are we’re probably going to end up with Joe Biden as our next president,” Silberman added. “I think Pete will have his day in national office, if not president, maybe vice president, maybe a Cabinet office, maybe a senator.”

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David Catanese is a national political correspondent for McClatchy in Washington. He’s covered campaigns for more than a decade, previously working at U.S. News & World Report and Politico. Prior to that he was a television reporter for NBC affiliates in Missouri and North Dakota. You can send tips, smart takes and critiques to dcatanese@mcclatchydc.com.
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