Pete Buttigieg will close out his campaign in Iowa focusing on his ability to win over disaffected Republicans who backed President Donald Trump in 2016, his campaign tells CNN, hoping that Democrats who are hellbent on defeating Trump in November will be wooed by a candidate who can eat into the President’s support.
The concerted push will amount to an electability argument by the Buttigieg campaign, which hopes to seize on the fact that Iowa has more so-called pivot counties – those places that voted for Barack Obama in 2012 but then backed Trump four years later – than any other state in the country.
This messaging will manifest itself both in Buttigieg schedule over his final week in Iowa – the candidate will headline events in Webster, Boone and Wapello counties, all of which flipped to Trump in 2016 – as well as their decision to headline a Fox News town hall on Sunday in Des Moines, hoping the platform on Trump’s favorite cable outlet will reach some voters who helped him win the White House.
The campaign will also begin to run a slate of new digital ads aimed at building support in places Trump won in 2016, including a series of 15-second ads that will highlight five Iowa counties that Trump won in 2016 – Appanoose, Henry, Marion, Warren and Washington – and Buttigieg’s pitch to win them back. The ads feature the margin that Trump won the county by and why the campaign believes Buttigieg can win.
“Warren County, Iowa: In 2016, Donald Trump won it by 16 points. Not this time,” says a narrator over shots of Buttigieg. “Pete is going everywhere and meeting everyone. This is how we win.”
The strategy reflects an urgency for Buttigieg in Iowa. Sources close to Buttigieg tell CNN that there is a growing consensus inside the campaign that if the mayor does not place in the top two in either Iowa or New Hampshire or if he places behind former Vice President Joe Biden in both states, the race could effectively be over for the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
That is counter to what candidates like Elizabeth Warren have been projecting in recent days. The Massachusetts senator released a memo on Friday noting that importance of early states like Iowa but projecting how the primary could be a long, drawn out fight for delegates, thereby downplaying the importance of one or two states.
Buttigieg took this argument to his biggest competitor in Iowa – Bernie Sanders – on Saturday. In two fundraising emails to supporters, Buttigieg’s campaign used a New York Times/Siena College poll to note the Vermont senator “performs the worst against Trump amongst all major candidates” and that nominating him is risks “nominating a candidate who cannot beat Donald Trump in November.”
“And that’s a risk we can’t take,” the email added.
This focus on electability is likely to rankle Buttigieg’s competitors, some of whom – like Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar – have questioned the mayor’s electability given he has only ever won small mayoral races in South Bend and the only time he ran for office statewide, he lost handily. Klobuchar said at the December debate that Democrats should “step back and think a lot if we’re going to put the person on top of our ticket that has not been able to win in a statewide race.”
But Rep. Dave Loebsack, Buttigieg’s top endorser in Iowa, counters that critique by arguing the former mayor’s ability to win in South Bend is the reason he feels he is the best positioned candidate to win over disaffected Republicans.
“Where Pete comes from himself, South Bend, is a town that is not unlike a lot of the towns in my district, especially those along the (Mississippi) river,” Loebsack told CNN. “Those are the areas where we are going to have to get back the number of Democrats who were peeled away and either didn’t vote or voted for Trump.”
Loebsack admitted that “a few of the candidates who will do better in our part of the world” – naming Biden and Klobuchar – but added that “Pete is the strongest of all of them.”
“The generational thing is important, quite honestly. I think we have to do everything we can to move this party forward and Pete is the future of the party,” said Loebsack, who is retiring from Congress. Biden is 77 years old and Klobuchar is 59.
Buttigieg has been making the electability argument throughout this presidential campaign. The former mayor has, to date, visited 23 of Iowa’s 31 pivot counties, and nearly 1,400 Iowans who live in pivot counties have attended a Buttigieg caucus training, said Chris Meagher, a Buttigieg spokesman.
That campaign is also currently running an ad in Iowa featuring Iowa State Sen. Bill Dotzler telling voters he is backing Buttigieg because “he has the greatest chance of defeating Donald Trump.”
But the campaign is making the strategic decision in the final weeks to focus intently on those areas of Iowa, and that includes organizing. Buttigieg’s team, in this upcoming week alone, will launch canvasses from 13 field offices that are located in an Iowa pivot county.
Hari Sevugan, Buttigieg’s deputy campaign manager, said that focusing on winning over places Trump won in 2016 reflects that voters in 2016 “understand the stakes” and “understand the electoral map” in a sophisticated way.
“The number one issue for voters is defeating Donald Trump and they are doing the math themselves,” Sevugan said, noting that a candidate who can woo voters in these counties has a good chance of making up ground in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, all states that will be key in November. “Pete is uniquely qualified to reach out to a broad coalition of voters. He can turn out the base, he can solidify our gains in the suburbs, and he can reach into exurban and rural communities and bring people home.”
Conversations with dozens of voters reflect that this strategy could be successful for the former mayor. Voters who backed Trump in 2016 but are considering backing Buttigieg in 2020 tell CNN that they were drawn to the fact he is a veteran, openly talks about his faith and appears to have an integrity they believe is lacking in the White House.
“We’ve got to remember that we’re all more than how we voted in the last election,” Buttigieg said Saturday night at a campaign stop in Storm Lake. “How you vote in the last election doesn’t define you, and this is our opportunity to focus on the future.”
Bobbi Jo Hancock, a 44-year-old teacher from Glenwood, Iowa, told CNN that she grew disillusioned with Trump shortly after voting for him in 2016 and was drawn to Buttigieg when she heard him offer “a presidency where you can turn on the news and have your blood pressure actually go down” – a familiar line from the former mayor’s stump speech.
“I just thought, ‘It would be so nice for the country to have that!” said Hancock, who has now seen Buttigieg five times. “He seems to have ideas, he’s never seemed to be caught flat footed and I find that reassuring.”
That sentiment was echoed by Ray Aitkins, a 69-year-old retired police officer from Brighton, Iowa, who backed Trump in 2016.
“I was so sick and tired of everything Washington was doing … and I thought maybe he can go in there and do something,” said Aitkins, who plans on caucusing for Buttigieg. “Trump had support like you wouldn’t believe, everyone supported him around here.”
Now, Aitkins said, people are growing skeptical of the President, which has led the Navy veteran toward Buttigieg.
“I am counting on Pete,” he said. “I think he is capable of doing it. … Trump is just an old bag of wind as far as I am concerned. He has not control of himself and I think Pete does.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct a quote from Rep. Dave Loebsack about Democrats who voted for Trump.