EMMETSBURG, Iowa – Pete Buttigieg is not touching the he-said-she-said between two of his chief primary rivals. In fact, he’s going to great lengths not to talk about any opponents at all, after spending the fall drawing contrasts with them.
Instead, Buttigieg, who has dropped 5 to 7 points in the polling averages here in a few months, is trying to regain the first-place position he once held in Iowa, closing out on a message of party unity. He’s staying outside of the conversation dominating cable news, campaigning miles away from the impeachment proceedings that called his opponents in the Senate away to jury duty.
In a five-day, marathon sprint across Iowa, including a brief break for Tuesday night’s debate in Des Moines, the former South Bend, Ind., mayor bounded into middle school gyms and VFW halls to make his case to “a lot of voters who are still in decision mode” who “still could vote for any number of candidates,” Buttigieg told reporters.
But where sharp attacks aided him in the fall — including tense exchanges with Sen. Elizabeth Warren over health care, accusing her of refusing to give a yes-or-no answer on costs in October — Buttigieg is instead leaning into where Democrats agree. When asked about his health care proposal by a voter in Arnold’s Park, Iowa, Buttigieg avoided direct contrast with his opponents altogether, simply promoting his own plan’s “optionality.”
“Our values and our message and our team have brought us to this point — that a lot of people, I think, would not have thought possible. Of course, we’ve got to continue working and continue making sure that we seal the deal,” Buttigieg said. “We’ve got to make sure we earn, going into the caucus, that kind of support.”
With Buttigieg, Warren, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders all running in a pack at the top of the latest Iowa polls, the frontrunners appear wary of exposing themselves to backlash. A tight race not only muddles who each candidate’s most direct competitors may be, it also incentivizes against negative or contrast campaigning because each candidate is working to be voters’ second choice, if not their first. It’s a unique feature of the Iowa caucuses, which allows voters to pick a new candidate if their first choice is deemed unviable after the “first alignment” in their precinct.
In January’s Des Moines Register poll, Buttigieg had the greatest number of Iowa Democrats considering supporting him — 60 percent — though he was essentially tied in second place with Warren and Biden.
But when Buttigieg had briefly shot ahead by 9 points in the previous Des Moines Register poll in November, the largest lead any candidate has enjoyed so far, it seeded “a sense he was peaking too soon,” said Sean Bagniewski, Polk County Democratic Party chairman, who is not endorsing in the primary.
“It made the expectations way too high for them, and that’s why they’ve bunkered down,” Bagniewski continued, adding that the Buttigieg campaign doesn’t “want to raise [expectations] any more than they already have been.”
And it’s not easy to recapture the energy reflected in that early polling. “I think he got a lot of people’s attention in the fall,” said Holly Filson-Heath, a 65-year-old Democrat who saw Buttigieg speak in Algona, Iowa. “But the enthusiasm isn’t as high as it was when he was in Algona a few months ago, but I think people feel like we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty.”
Heightened scrutiny of Buttigieg’s record in South Bend, as well as his lack of support among African American voters, soon followed his rising poll numbers.
“You have four campaigns who can look at the Iowa polling and say: ‘We can win,’ which means they’re all in a tricky position of not being sure of changing what they’re doing or keep your head down,” said Grant Woodard, a former Iowa Democratic operative and Des Moines lawyer. “You’re almost scared to do anything” because the polling is so muddled, Woodard continued.
Even Warren and Sanders, who clashed after the debate over accusations of lying, are trying to deescalate the conflict, tamping down discontent in their camps. On Thursday, asked again about the Warren-Sanders clash, Buttigieg said he’d “leave it to the pundits to talk about horse race stuff.”
Buttigieg’s “no drama” approach in the final stretch is “very appealing to me,” said Linda Phillips, a 44-year-old Democrat from Sioux City who saw him Thursday night. “We’ve had enough drama with this White House.”
“Right before the caucuses, things tend tighten up,” said Corrie Radloff, a 44-year-old Democrat who saw Buttigieg in Sioux City Thursday night and plans to caucus for the mayor. “He’s doing what he needs to do at this stage — show up, don’t denigrate other candidates.”
Buttigieg’s ability to show up all over Iowa also isn’t impeded by the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, which drew away Warren, Sanders and Amy Klobuchar in the days immediately following the debate.
"He's going to park himself in Iowa because he has to do well there,” one Democratic strategist said. “And he does that by beating Biden in Iowa."
As the senators were sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts on Thursday, Buttigieg took questions from voters in Orange City, Iowa, one of the most conservative corners of the state.
“It’s definitely an advantage for him and Biden because that means they can be here,” said Jeff Link, an Iowa-based Democratic strategist. “If I were Buttigieg, I’d want to be out of the national conversation for a few weeks.”
But that may not be enough for other undecided voters. Treyla Lee, who also saw Buttigieg in Sioux City, said his “new energy” is exciting, but may not be enough to sway her from backing Biden.
“Our country is in such a state right now that, I hate to lean to the old, but it’s Pete’s lack of experience,” said Lee, a 48-year-old Democrat. She left the event still leaning toward Biden, but she’ll make up her mind on Feb. 3, when she’ll “go off my emotion” to make her final decision.