Kim Sweat is the type of voter who might worry Beto O’Rourke’s campaign.
Infatuated with O’Rourke since his 2018 Senate bid in Texas, Sweat hosted a watch party for his presidential campaign launch at her Davenport, Iowa, home in March. She ordered an O’Rourke yard sign, and she went to two of his early events in Iowa. Then she started to hear more about South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. After attending her third O’Rourke event on Monday, she concluded: “I’m not as smitten with him anymore.”
Sweat’s burgeoning support of Buttigieg and her waning interest in O’Rourke is mirrored in national polls of the 2020 Democratic nomination race. Over the past two months, Buttigieg surged from a virtual unknown to the top tier of contenders as O’Rourke slipped down.
“I’m hoping that I’m just on Beto overload, but my problem is I really enjoy Mayor Pete,” said Sweat, 43. “I don’t feel like he’s digging into a bag and pulling out an answer.”
Although the first votes in the nominating contest won’t be cast until the Iowa caucuses next February, Democrats in the state are already sorting through the field of 23 candidates who want to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020. Over a five-day span, Buttigieg and O’Rourke toured through the state, often competing for the same segment of voters, many of whom clearly were weighing the choice between the two men.
At O’Rourke’s town hall in Tipton, Iowa, on Tuesday, he was asked multiple times about Buttigieg.
“Every time that I hear Mayor Pete speak, out of his mouth comes gravitas,” one voter said. “Do you have gravitas?”
The question, and Sweat’s observation about Buttigieg, illustrate some of the doubts and criticism that have emerged since O’Rourke, a former congressman from Texas, jumped into the race in March with a splashy Vanity Fair cover profile and a quick surge of fundraising.
O’Rourke declined to directly address his competition with Buttigieg. But after the town hall he told reporters, “Who the hell knows this far out from the first caucuses or election. There’s so much time, so many people to meet. So many highs and lows that every single candidate is going to experience. So, I really am not concerned about that.”
It’s a question of how much space there is in an already crowded field for two candidates with so many similarities. Both are white men from conservative states who have drawn praise for their oratory skills and ability to connect with voters. They have also both faced criticism for lacking policy specifics, as they emphasize overarching themes rather than details.
The two have also staked their candidacies on appealing to young voters, with Buttigieg, 37, calling for a “generational change” in leadership and O’Rourke, 46, campaigning on college campuses, saying he draws his inspiration from “the very youngest among us in our democracy.”
Daniel Williams, 22, said that while he and many of his friends remain undecided, they have started to shift their attention away from O’Rourke and toward Buttigieg, who he said was a more exciting candidate.
“Unfortunately for Beto, he’s not running against Ted Cruz anymore,” said Williams, a resident of Sherrard, Illinois, who attended O’Rourke’s town hall in Davenport. “He’s running against a lot of people that agree with him, a lot of people that are exciting, including Mayor Pete. So Beto, he was in the public eye and he was definitely the Democrat I think Texas needed. But now people are seeing there are other Democrats available.”
The size of the field is a major concern for both men, said Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic strategist. That’s particularly true given the strength of former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign and Senator Bernie Sanders’ appeal to young voters, Trippi said. Buttigieg and O’Rourke remain well behind Biden and Sanders in state and national polls.
“You can get momentum, you can grab attention and move in the polls, but in a field this large, it’s very tough to sustain that, and it’s very hard to get it back once you lose it,” Trippi said. “That may be the predicament Beto is in.”
O’Rourke and Buttigieg are also jockeying to curry favor with veterans from Barack Obama’s campaigns, as the two have often been compared to the former president. They have also taken to echoing Obama’s signature “hope and change” message.
“You don’t run for office unless you have some measure of faith and hope in the American people,” Buttigieg said at his Fox News town hall on Sunday night.
O’Rourke drew a flood of Obama comparisons during his Texas Senate race, and they continued into the lead-up to his presidential announcement. He garnered lavish praise from the former Obama staffers who now run Crooked Media, producer of liberal podcasts, and his campaign manager and many of his top aides are Obama veterans.
But, the Obama glow has started to shift toward Buttigieg. His campaign has picked up some key Obama staffers, including the former president’s advertising firm.
“He’s almost the second coming of hope and change,” Kevin Kutsch, a 63-year-old resident of Maquoketa, Iowa, said about Buttigieg.
Kutsch, who attended Buttigieg’s town hall at a brewery in Dubuque over the weekend, said he has yet to commit to a candidate, but he was drawn to Buttigieg’s positive message and clear vision for uniting the country.
Buttigieg also has been the getting the attention of conservatives.
“I think Pete Buttigieg is the most impressive, by far, candidate in terms of just raw political talent in the Democratic field," Brit Hume, a Fox News senior political analyst, said after Buttigieg participated in a town hall on the network. “And, he may be the most impressive candidate I’ve seen since the emergence of Barack Obama.”
O’Rourke’s campaign has dismissed the narrative that he has stumbled in his presidential rollout, pointing to his performance at a CNN town hall on Tuesday, where O’Rourke offered detailed policy proposals.
Strategically, the candidates are running vastly different campaigns. Buttigieg, who is gay and a military veteran, has been a ubiquitous presence on television, and it was his CNN town hall in March that helped catapult his campaign out of obscurity.
By contrast, O’Rourke, a former congressman and small business owner, shied away from national media in the months following his entry into the race. O’Rourke’s campaign said he was focused on meeting voters, pointing to the 67 events in 36 Iowa counties he has held since he jumped into the race. By comparison, Buttigieg has hit 18 events 10 Iowa counties.
But O’Rourke has acknowledged he needs to do a better job of reaching a national audience. In an interview last week with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that was widely seen as an attempt to reset his campaign, O’Rourke said, “I hope that I’m continuing to do better over time.”