Pete Buttigieg scrambles to turn 2020 buzz into momentum
Manchester, N.H. – There are no policy positions on his website. He has virtually no paid presence in the states that matter most. And his campaign manager is a high school friend with no experience in presidential politics.
This is the upstart campaign of Pete Buttigieg , the 37-year-old Indiana mayor who has suddenly become one of the hottest names in the Democrats’ presidential primary season. Yet there is an increasing urgency, inside and outside of the campaign, that his moment may pass if he doesn’t take swift action to build a national organization capable of harnessing the energy he’ll need to sustain his surge in the nine months or so before the first votes are cast.
“I get more inquiries on how to reach him or his campaign than anyone else,” New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley said, adding that he’s aware of just one part-time Buttigieg staffer in the state to help coordinate the requests.
“This is what it’s like when you’re having your moment,” Buckley said. “Whether he can capitalize – that’s his challenge.”
Indeed, it’s far from certain that Buttigieg, a gay former military officer, will continue to stand out in a contest that features political heavyweights like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden, who is expected to launch his candidacy later this week. Aware of the daunting road ahead, Buttigieg’s team is plowing forward with an ambitious push to expand his operation, attract new campaign cash and pound the airwaves with virtually every media opportunity available.
In an interview, Buttigieg conceded that his supporters across the country have essentially had to “organize themselves” so far.
“We need to make sure we have the organizational strengths to sustain this wave of support that we’ve been getting for the last almost month and a half now,” he said. “It’s created some challenges to rise this far this fast, but I would put those in the category of a good problem to have.”
Federal filings suggest the campaign had little more than a dozen paid staffers at the end of last month. Buttigieg’s paid presence now exceeds 30, according to campaign manager Mike Schmuhl, who said it’ll be closer to 50 by the end of the month.
Most of the team is based in South Bend, Indiana, while a handful of staffers work from shared “We Work” office space in Chicago and a few others are based in Iowa and New Hampshire. Buttigieg plans to expand his presence in Iowa and New Hampshire and hire paid staff in South Carolina, Nevada and California in the coming weeks.
Still, don’t expect the Democratic mayor to create a giant campaign apparatus in line with Warren, Sanders or even New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. Buttigieg has the money to build a large organization after raising more than $7 million last quarter, but the core of the near-term campaign strategy hinges on an aggressive fundraising schedule and a say-yes-to-almost-everything media strategy – whether media outlets focused on politics, entertainment or sports – backed by strong debate performances.
Schmuhl said the campaign doesn’t have national political consultants on the payroll and it’s unclear if it ever will.
“We want to build a campaign that’s a little disruptive, kind of entrepreneurial. Right now, it feels like a startup,” said Schmuhl, who first met Buttigieg in high school and later ran former Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly’s 2010 congressional campaign before reconnecting with Buttigieg.
There are clearly organizational challenges as the campaign ramps up, Schmuhl continued, but there is also “tremendous opportunity.”
“We’re in the game,” he said.
As was the case in former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s early campaign appearances, the lack of formal organization has allowed for a certain level of authenticity on the campaign trail as Buttigieg introduces himself to voters. It’s also created challenges.
He’s drawing big crowds in Iowa and New Hampshire, but there were few, if any, campaign staff on hand to take down information from enthusiastic supporters who want to be part of the campaign. While Buckley said he’s aware of only one part-time staffer in the state, a Buttigieg spokesman said the aide was full-time.
And voters eager to learn more about the mayor’s policy positions have been left wanting. Buttigieg has called for ending the Electoral College and expanding the Supreme Court. But in sharp contrast to some of his higher-profile competitors, he has yet to hire a policy director or release any written policies.
New Hampshire Democrat Lauren O’Sullivan, a 35-year-old who attended a house party for Buttigieg over the weekend, said she was initially unsure about the Midwestern mayor after going on his website. She felt she “didn’t know where he stood on any positions.”
She was somewhat reassured after he talked about specific policies at the Saturday house party.
“It was good to see that there is some platform,” O’Sullivan said.
For now, Buttigieg’s team wants to get him in front of as many people as possible.
That’ll include travel to meet voters in the early states on the presidential primary calendar, but after a week on the road in Iowa and New Hampshire, he’ll spend the coming days focused on raising as much money as possible.
This week he’ll launch a California fundraising swing featuring 11 stops across three days. Hollywood has taken an early liking to Buttigieg. Actors including Ryan Reynolds have already written small checks. Others in the entertainment industry are expected to attend events on the California tour, although the campaign declined to name them.
It’s critically important for Buttigieg to focus on fundraising while he’s surging, said Democratic strategist Symone Sanders, who predicted that Buttigieg’s moment is unlikely to last.
“Three weeks ago it was Beto. Now it’s Mayor Pete. Three weeks from now it’ll be somebody else,” she said. “It’s important to have a viable campaign to capitalize on this moment.”
Buttigieg acknowledged his organizational challenges on the campaign trail in recent days.
“Every time I fool myself into thinking I’m a household name, I get a humbling reminder somewhere that not everybody is following the blow by blow,” he said at the New Hampshire house party. He asked voters to join his effort, which he said is now “racing to build an organization to catch up with ourselves.”
Afterward, as some in the crowd eagerly lined up for pictures with the young mayor, 65-year-old retired doctor Wayne Goldner stood in the kitchen and praised Buttigieg’s performance.
The mayor’s getting “very popular,” he said, and rightfully so.
“He’s going to get too big for house parties,” Goldner said. “I think in New Hampshire he’s big enough for the bigger venues already.”
Associated Press writer Alexandra Jaffe in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.