MERRIMACK, N.H. — Two days after his surprise performance in Iowa, Pete Buttigieg’s campaign held a town hall for veterans here. The event was so packed that dozens of reporters — from local TV stations and big national outlets — couldn’t get in, and a large number of voters were turned away, trudging back to their cars cold and angry.
For Buttigieg, it’s a good problem to have — an unmistakable sign of the surge of interest in his candidacy and the Iowa-fueled momentum he’s carried into New Hampshire. But the influx of curiosity and support from voters has his campaign straining to keep up.
Buttigieg’s New Hampshire operation is smaller than those of some of his presidential rivals, and his campaign has dropped just $3 million in TV ads in the state, a third of his spending on commercials in Iowa. He doesn’t claim neighbor-state status, like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Buttigieg and Sanders, who departed Iowa virtually tied for the top slot, are on track to clash again in New Hampshire, according to a slate of new polls released this week.
But the lessons for Buttigieg in Iowa — outworking his opponents with face-to-face blitz of events and focusing on Obama-Trump counties — still apply in New Hampshire, as his campaign scrambles to replicate them here.
Buttigieg’s new growth in the first primary state, captured by an 8-point boost in polling this week, includes a “whole new base of supporters” after Iowa, “and it's a robust base for sure — but it is like a new operation and a new effort,” said Lucas Meyer, chair of the New Hampshire Young Democrats. “It's really going to be curtains up for the first time for this campaign over the next few days. … It's going to be sink or swim.”
The high-paced schedule kicked off early for Buttigieg, who did a round of TV hits and a town hall by Tuesday morning in New Hampshire, while some of his candidates hadn’t even left Iowa. His schedule that day was so busy that a car with his senior staff ran out of gas rushing between events. By the end of the day, Buttigieg was sporting a 5’o’clock shadow.
Over the weekend, he’s crisscrossing the state, stumping at town halls, forums and canvass lunches in 10 towns. It’s a hard-to-miss contrast to several of his rivals, though Sanders is keeping up a similar clip.
"They seem very focused on showing he can do a lot of events, a lot of aggressive outreach, and that's about showing his youth in a positive light," said Jim Demers, a longtime New Hampshire Democratic strategist who has endorsed Joe Biden. Buttigieg took a similar tack in Iowa, sweeping through the state with more than 50 town halls over three weeks.
Buttigieg’s scheduled visits also closely mimic the messaging and locations that resonated with Iowans — broadening his coalition from Democrats to independents and “future former Republicans,” a line he regularly trots out on the stump.
“Go everywhere, talk to everyone and go places that other people aren’t going — that’s a part of the strategy for the campaign and its surrogates," said Maura Sullivan, a 2018 Democratic congressional candidate and Buttigieg endorser, noting his frequent visits to Sullivan County, which flipped from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. "[Buttigieg] is winning over Independents there.”
In New Hampshire, Independents can vote in the Democratic primary because of the state’s open primary system, which could advantage a more center-left candidate like Buttigieg “If they feel like Bernie is a real threat to become the nominee,” said Ben LaBolt, who worked on Obama's presidential campaigns.
The focus on bringing in moderates and independents is "their way of addressing the electability question, and now they can back it up with data from Iowa," LaBolt said, noting that Buttigieg won 21 counties that flipped from Obama to Trump in Iowa, totaling more than 60 percent of those pivot counties. "Now, that's a much stronger argument as he's moving through New Hampshire."
But New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley threw cold water on the idea that Independents — who can pull a ballot for either Republicans or Democrats — could tip the scales.
“John McCain's campaign in 2000 was really the most effective in communicating and getting independents to move as a bloc. I think that was a unique situation,” Buckley said. “Since then, candidates have tried to really target independents and there hasn't been a lot of success in that.”
Still, Buttigieg wove that pitch into his first town hall in Keene, N.H., calling out to “future former Republicans” and adding that he saw “a few of you here acknowledging” that they may identify that way.
“We may not agree on everything, but we can agree that the time has come to deliver change before it’s too late,” Buttigieg told them.
“People are trying to find the moderate alternative to Bernie,” said Chris Bowen, a 60-year-old retiree who is canvassing for Buttigieg and watched him speak in Keene on Saturday. “Doing well in Iowa really helped make him seem like the person who could do that, and I’m hearing that at the doors.”
Buttigieg, who works intimately with his state leadership teams, knows exactly who he is targeting in New Hampshire — namely veterans, college students and moderate voters who were with Obama in 2012 before switching to Trump in 2016. It drives everything the campaign does: Where they staff organizers, how they approach voters and where Buttigieg spends his final days before Tuesday’s primary.
“What we're seeing is a surge of volunteers that are saying, ‘How can I help, what can I do?’,” said Victoria Williams, the New Hampshire state director. “It’s exciting and gives us even more ability to … have those one-on-one conversations with folks.”
Williams said the campaign has full-time outreach staff embedded in all the college towns. And Buttigieg’s campaign stops also include some of the few pockets of young people in a state that is second-oldest, on average, in the nation.
Having “energy and momentum with us,” she said, “is really helpful.”