Pete Buttigieg is pitching himself as an alternative to moderate Democrats who might not be sold on Joe Biden.
On a recent bus tour of Iowa, Buttigieg framed his argument, emphasizing the need to “re-center our politics” and recapture the notion of freedom and faith from conservatives who he says use those terms to “club people over the head.”
That message could find a new audience as Biden, the leading moderate, is tangled in the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump.
So the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend is positioning himself to be the standard-bearer for moderate Democrats if the front-runner fades.
Despite raising a staggering $51 million in 2019, Buttigieg has been stuck in fourth place, between 5% and 7% in national polls. Part of that is because he’s hard to define. He’s a little-known mayor of a small city. He eschews ideological labels. He blends a message that sounds like Elizabeth Warren with a platform that looks like Biden’s and a courteous Midwestern demeanor that calls for national unity.
His “re-centering” message is designed to counter Republican caricatures of Democrats—he told Iowans that “freedom” isn’t just about businesses having fewer regulations, it’s about being free of crippling health care costs; and he says big government should get out of the way of women making reproductive choices.
That approach cuts both ways: It adds a measure of political viability in the minds of some Democrats, but it also makes it hard for Buttigieg to break through in a cluttered field and Trump-dominated news cycle. His campaign is betting that voters will change their minds once they tune in.
Biden has been perched in the top seat since he entered the race in April. But his age, lackluster debate performances, frequent verbal gaffes and the Ukraine scandal all have raised questions about his durability.
Warren has benefited the most from Biden’s sag but she faces persistent questions about whether her policies—including a public health insurance proposal that would eliminate private coverage—are too far left for a general election audience.
That’s where Buttigieg hopes he comes in.
He knows he can’t out-progressive Warren and Bernie Sanders, so he’s sharpening his elbows and depicting his comparably moderate agenda as more viable. He’s wary of attacking Biden for fear of alienating other Democrats, so he gently pokes him on his age.
Iowa’s first-in-the-nation contest is Buttigieg’s opportunity to dispense with rivals like Kamala Harris, who are also courting moderates. It’s an overwhelmingly white state kicking off a race in which he has struggled with non-white voters. His relatable Middle American style plays well in a state where voters expect to personally meet the candidates. And it has catapulted outsiders in the past.
“Iowa is critical,” Buttigieg said last week after a campaign event in Clinton, Iowa. “We will be able to demonstrate our strength in this campaign through our results in the Iowa caucuses.”
The subsequent contests are bleaker. New Hampshire is the neighboring state of rivals Warren and Sanders; Nevada and South Carolina have high shares of non-white voters, who Buttigieg barely registers with in polls.
Nationally, Buttigieg is tied with Harris for fourth place, but in Iowa, a recent Des Moines Register/CNN poll placed him statistically tied for third place at 9% with Sanders, or 13 points behind Warren’s lead.
At an event in Dubuque, Iowa, he touted his “Medicare for all who want it” plan and nicknamed the sweeping Sanders-Warren proposal “Medicare for All whether you want it or not.”
Buttigieg recently hit Warren for being “extremely evasive” about the fact that her health care overhaul would raise taxes on the middle class. Warren has rejected that framing and argued that middle-income people will come out ahead because of the elimination of premiums and individual costs.
He hopes to win over Democrats who are drawn to Warren’s calls for big structural change to government but who want a candidate who isn’t bruising for a fight, the very quality that put Biden in the No. 1 slot.
“I love her. I’m a huge Elizabeth Warren fan,” said Elaine Bryant, an innkeeper in Denver, who said she’s leaning toward Buttigieg. “She a little more aggressive and that’s off-putting—in anyone, not just because she’s a woman. He seems very relatable.”
Buttigieg, talking to reporters on his Iowa bus tour, said he cares about results.
“She and I are after the same goals,” he said of Warren. “But her pitch has a lot more to do with fighting—she’s more interested in the fighting part of it. I’m more interested in outcomes.”
The youngest candidate in the 2020 race makes frequent, generational contrasts with Biden, 76, cautious not to suffer the same blowback as did other Biden rivals who mounted frontal assaults. He also argues that Democratic nominees who are Washington insiders keep losing, without criticizing Hillary Clinton in 2016 and John Kerry in 2004.
“I like him better than Biden because Biden’s stumbling. He’s not at the top of his game,” said Greg Griffin, 70, of Anamosa, Iowa, adding that he appreciates Buttigieg’s groundedness and youth.
“These old farts that have been in office for 30 or 40 years need to get out because they don’t understand what our young people are going through today,” said Kim Mangers, 60, of Dubuque. She said she’s undecided but has ruled out Biden or Sanders.
Emily Radtke, 33, of Dubuque, wants a young candidate and plans to support Buttigieg.
“He’s intelligent. He can reach out to all groups. He’s well-spoken and unifying,” she said.
To other voters, his youth and lack of experience in high office is a concern, one he counters by having those who introduce him at rallies point out that he has more governing experience than Trump.
Yet for all his focus on a governing vision, Buttigieg is more comfortable talking about it in the abstract. He says he’ll pay for his health care plan with higher corporate taxes without offering details. He says he favors a wealth tax but has declined to get specific. He laments policy failures that have accumulated over decades but refraining from naming any mistakes by former President Barack Obama. He has championed expanding the federal courts but said he’s not wedded to one way of doing it.
Faced with questions about Trump last Tuesday, hours before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal inquiry, Buttigieg said it wasn’t his focus: “My message is: Yeah, he needs to be impeached, now let’s get you some health care.”