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 “a lot of unglamorous organizing work, blocking and tackling work, assembling a team, raising the money, deploying it in order to get things done.”
The campaign hopes to have 50 people on staff by the end of the month.
That still pales in comparison to some of his competitors, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who boasts upwards of 170 people on staff.
And while the team is eyeing staffers in early states, none have been announced. Nor have campaign offices in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina been opened – a dramatic difference between candidates like Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris and even candidates like former Rep. John Delaney, who has more than 20 staffers and eight offices in Iowa.
The Buttigieg campaign, led by Schmuhl, has responded to the popularity with a number of out-of-the-box solutions, as evidenced by the video search feature on their website. Schmuhl also wants to open a storefront in downtown South Bend where people can sign-up to volunteer, buy merchandise and even – in Schmuhl’s dreams – use virtual reality headsets to watch a Buttigieg town hall.
Schmuhl has also made two distinct tactical decisions: Going on a controlled, but fast-paced, hiring spree to keep up with the attention. And employing an assertive media strategy that puts the candidate front and center on a range of traditional and non-traditional media platforms, including entertainment shows and a slew of podcasts.
The hiring has been led by Schmuhl, the mild-mannered South Bend native helming Buttigieg’s campaign, while the media strategy has been crafted by Lis Smith, Buttigieg’s 36-year-old spokeswoman. Though they’re the same age, Schmuhl and Smith are quite different, but those differences reflect Buttigieg’s own uniqueness, with Schmuhl representing the candidate’s agreeable, respectful Midwestern roots and Smith representing his driven, hard-charging ambition.
“Pete is a different kind of candidate, and we want to be a different kind of campaign,” said Schmuhl. “We want to have a campaign, build a campaign and run a campaign that reflects that.”
For now, almost all the new hires are young and some are on their first presidential campaigns, while others worked for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and are motivated to defeat President Donald Trump. And according to Schmuhl, a number of the new staffers told Buttigieg’s campaign that they were planning to sit out the 2020 campaign before they applied to join the Buttigieg campaign.
Schmul says the campaign is trying to be more “horizontal” than top down and is also putting less of an emphasis on pollsters and consultants, but top Democratic operatives are already calling.
Bill Hyers, who managed New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first mayoral campaign and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s first run for Congress, is in talks to cut the campaign’s ads, said a campaign spokeswoman. And Schmuhl said that a slew of other experienced hands are offering their help.
But none has been hired yet.
To Schmuhl, it still feels “surreal” to be running the presidential campaign for his high-school buddy. The two first met when Buttigieg, then in 9th grade, gave Schmuhl, an 8th grader, a tour of St. Joseph High School in South Bend.
“I don’t remember too much from that meeting, but we were both shorter, pudgier, pretty shy and now we are both involved in politics every day,” Schmuhl says now.
Buttigieg asked Schmuhl, who ran then Rep. Joe Donnelly’s 2010 campaign, to manage his mayoral campaign in 2011. When Buttigieg won, Schmuhl became his chief of staff. After a few years away from the mayor’s office, including a stint at the Democratic organizing firm 270 Strategies, Schmuhl returned to the Buttigieg orbit in 2018 to help him prepare a presidential bid.
A key part of Buttigieg’s rise has been his near omnipresent approach to media, a strategy that centers around Buttigieg’s spokeswoman Lis Smith, who has helped book him on nearly any platform that will take him.
Smith, who has previously worked for Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, joined Buttigieg in 2017 as his spokeswoman as he began to campaign for chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
The difference between Buttigieg and Smith was apparent from the outset. Where Buttigieg is laid back but deliberate, Smith is high octane and aggressive.
But in those differences is a key benefit: Balance.
“We have sort of a yin yang thing going on, but it makes more sense than you’d think,” Smith told CNN. “He knew that for this thing to take off, we needed an approach that was strategic, aggressive, ambitious and maybe a little bit crazy. That’s what I helped bring to the table.”
And Smith has booked Buttigieg solid. He has done late night, cable, newspaper sit downs and lengthy profiles. He has talked to traditional outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN, while also sitting down – in studio – with TMZ Live, Ebony and Teen Vogue.
Smith has also been willing – unlike some Democratic campaigns – to put her candidate on Fox News. Buttigieg sat down with Fox News Sunday in March, and the campaign is planning to do a Fox News town hall on May 19.
“A lot of other candidates would have bristled at the dizzying pace of media outreach that we did across different platforms and on different topics, but he was game and trusted that there was a method to the madness,” Smith said.
“We don’t turn up our noses at any outlet,” Smith said. “There is nothing that he is too good to do.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that Pete Buttigieg ran for mayor of South Bend, Indiana, for the first time in 2011.