CNN’s town hall Monday night in New Hampshire was the clearest sign yet that South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is a candidate who’s still catching up to his own popularity.
Mere hours before Buttigieg took the stage on Monday, a new Granite State Poll from the University of New Hampshire showed that support for Buttigieg had jumped 14 points, launching him into top tier of candidates in the first-in-the-nation primary state.
Yet during the event, CNN’s Anderson Cooper pointed out that, unlike most of his fellow Democratic presidential candidates, Buttigieg still didn’t have any policy details laid out on his campaign website. The mayor responded that while policy is important, Democrats need to communicate their values without drowning voters in “minutia.”
It was apparent that Buttigieg came in expecting the question– minutes after he said his campaign planned to unveil a tool that would allow people to watch videos of him discussing specific policies and issues on his website, the feature was live.
“We’re in the second week of my campaign being official,” Buttigieg said. “We’ll continue building our website accordingly, too.”
The scene illustrates how Buttigieg is working to match his rising poll numbers with a campaign befitting a top-tier candidate, and how that campaign is deploying some novel digital tools to take advantage of it.
Three months ago, none of this seemed likely.
Buttigieg’s campaign staff could be counted on one hand when he announced an exploratory committee in January. The idea that he would have to fly private at times – something he is now doing to meet the demands of the campaign – would have sounded like a fairytale. And the prospect of having an extensive advance team to set up events capable of hosting 1,600 would-be supporters would have been laughed off.
Buttigieg and his aides say they always believed they would have a moment. But none – including the mayor himself – thought it would happen so quickly.
For Mike Schmuhl, Buttigieg’s 36-year-old campaign manager and longtime friend, the key moment came after the mayor’s first CNN town hall in March. It was then, Schmuhl said, that he realized he “didn’t need to just build a plane while flying, but a rocket ship while taking off” in order to keep up with the momentum.
“The speed of it all,” he said, “was remarkable.”
Popularity outpacing organization
Back in January the mayor was confident that a small campaign with five staffers would be enough for a few months, as he worked to convince Democratic donors, political operatives and reporters that a 37-year-old midwestern mayor should be taken seriously as a presidential candidate – and also how to pronounce his Maltese last name. (It’s Boot-edge-edge)
Three months later, Buttigieg is now solidly in the upper echelons of early state polls. Donations are pouring in, including $7 million during the first three months of 2019. His staff has ballooned to around 40 people after the campaign was flooded with resumes, and at his new office in South Bend (which is five times bigger than his old one), people now spend hours waiting in the lobby to hand out resumes and ask for jobs. Some even stop aides at local coffee shops.
This has all been welcome news to Buttigieg and his team, but the sudden popularity creates issues. The once-shoestring campaign that proudly spent less than 10% of the money it raised in the first quarter of 2019 is rushing to build a robust organization.
And time is of the essence: Buttigieg and his team are aware that a lack of organization could keep the campaign from taking full advantage of the current momentum.
“The biggest thing we have to do now is convert that (energy) into enduring support,” Buttigieg told reporters earlier this month in Iowa. Doing that will mean