PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Earlier this week, Pete Buttigieg traveled more than 100 miles through the Granite State on a bus emblazoned with his name and packed with over a dozen journalists. It’s a spectacle that hasn’t been seen in recent presidential races, but it’s part of a freewheeling strategy that has helped bring Buttigieg from relative obscurity to the top of the Democratic primary field.
As the bus headed toward Buttigieg’s third event of the day in Rochester, N.H., on Monday, news broke that a Quinnipiac University poll was showing the South Bend, Ind., mayor in third place in the state, just 1 percentage point behind Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. It was the latest sign Buttigieg has emerged as one of four frontrunners in the packed Democratic primary field along with Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Vice President Joe Biden.
Buttigieg welcomed news of the numbers, saying it reflects the “crowds we’re seeing in the gyms, the enthusiasm we’re seeing on the faces of the people that I speak to.” He added: “One poll is just any one poll, but I would hope that we start to see the numbers reflect the enthusiasm we feel on the ground, and it sounds like that might be validating that.”
The numbers are even better in Iowa, which is the first state to vote in the primary. On Saturday evening, a new poll came out that showed Buttigieg had surged into first place. That survey brought Buttigieg into the top spot in the state on average.
Buttigieg’s near constant media blitz since entering the race in January, combined with positioning himself as a moderate alternative to progressive candidates, appears in recent weeks to be paying off. The mayor has already done hundreds of interviews, according to his campaign, and has gone on three of these media bus tours, two in Iowa and this latest one here in New Hampshire.
He sees the press engagement as a crucial part of his recent success.
“I think this has served us well. We believe in trying as much as possible to show in the course of the campaign what the White House would look like with me as president, and part of that is believing in the importance of engaging with press and the importance of as much transparency and access as we can responsibly offer,” Buttigieg said.
Buttigieg isn’t the first presidential candidate to have this kind of press bus. His long rides with reporters have clear echoes of the “Straight Talk Express” the late Arizona Sen. John McCain rode as he locked down the Republican nomination in 2008.
“Definitely [we] got a lot of comparisons to another bus tour, some of which I think we had to work through to reflect the fact that I’m a different person and this is a different era than the last time this had been done,” Buttigieg said of McCain.
Presidential candidates are typically drawn from the ranks of Congress or governors’ mansions, but Buttigieg, who was elected in 2011, is mayor of a city with a little more than 100,000 residents. When Buttigieg began the race, few people knew his name. By June, nearly three quarters of Democratic voters were familiar with him. Buttigieg’s rise from a Midwestern city hall to near the head of the Democratic pack has been a source of frustration for some of his rivals who have privately griped about his relative inexperience. He brushed off that critique when asked about it on the bus.
“I’m not really focused on that,” Buttigieg said. “I think that if we continue to reach voters with the right message, then that’s how we’re going to win.”
At 37, Buttigieg is also younger than any of his rivals, or any other president in history. He would be the first millennial president and the first openly gay man to hold the office. He spent six years as an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserves, including a stint in Afghanistan in 2014 that required Buttigieg to take a leave from City Hall.
That military experience is something that Buttigieg said “shapes my understanding of what public office means.” The mayor spent last Monday in New Hampshire celebrating Veterans Day, and he rolled out a plan for veterans’ services, including an emphasis on programs for their families.
While has has gained momentum in recent weeks, Buttigieg has not returned to the high numbers he saw before a June incident when a white South Bend police officer shot and killed a black man. The shooting put a national spotlight on the fact his hometown had a dramatic spike in violent crime this year, and it sparked angry protests from the city’s African-American residents who were dissatisfied with his oversight of the police department.
The demonstrations called attention to Buttigieg’s relative lack of support among black voters, underscored by a poll in October in South Carolina, where African-Americans make up the majority of Democratic primary voters. Buttigieg’s black support there was at an anemic 1 percent.
Buttigieg’s response to the situation included setting up meetings with Black Lives Matter activists to discuss potential reforms. However, some of the community groups criticized Buttigieg after their meetings with him and said he“rushed” the conversation.
Buttigieg hasn’t attended all of the police reform meetings in the city, but said he’s confident change will begin on his watch.
“It’s true that I haven’t been in the room for all of those community meetings, but I’ve certainly participated and I think they’ve set us up in a very good direction. They’ve culminated in a set of recommendations that went to our board of public safety … and the board will be taking those up,” he said. “I think at least some of those components will be acted on in even the weeks before I leave office.”
Buttigieg’s issues with black voters won’t pose much of an issue in the initial phase of the primary. Iowa and New Hampshire, which are the first two states on the calendar, are over 90 percent white. On the bus, Buttigieg defended the current schedule by pointing to the next two states on the calendar, which are more diverse.
“The role of the first four states taken together is very healthy for this process,” Buttigieg said, adding, “You have such different states from each other in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.”
While in some ways Buttigieg is an unconventional candidate, he is pushing for a more moderate approach than many of his rivals. Along with his nonstop media blitz, Buttigieg’s success so far is, at least in part, due to voters who are looking for a centrist option in the Democratic field. Both Sanders and Warren support a Medicare for All plan that would establish a public health care system.
Buttigieg has pushed “Medicare for All Who Want It,” which would preserve some private health insurance plans. Though his policies are clearly less radical than those of some opponents, Buttigieg rejects the labels of “moderate” and “centrist” and instead paints himself as a pragmatist.
“It’s certainly the case that I don’t have a lot of appetite for an extreme solution on health care, for example,” said Buttigieg.
Buttigieg may not see himself as a centrist, but many of his supporters clearly do. Carol McMahon, a retired insurance agent who lives in New Hampshire and attended the mayor’s speech in Rochester, said she has campaigned for Buttigieg in her home state and Iowa. McMahon said she has met many New Hampshire voters who aren’t aware of Buttigieg but are primed to back him because they feel Sanders and Warren are “too far left” to beat President Trump and worry the other more moderate frontrunner, Biden, is “too weak.”
“So, I say you just pulled right into Mayor Pete’s driveway with those comments,” McMahon said.
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