© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Buttigieg Makes His Pitch To Iowans


Democratic presidential candidates are darting around Iowa and New Hampshire, hosting town halls and rallies. The former mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg was largely unknown at the beginning of the campaign. But with two weeks until the Iowa caucuses, hundreds of people now line up to hear him speak in a middle school gym or a veterans hall. NPR's Asma Khalid takes us outside and inside one of his events.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: It is bitterly cold, the type of cold where your face hurts - just two degrees outside. You can hear the wind blowing. But here in northern Iowa, despite the cold, despite the snow still in this parking lot, there was a full crowd of people to come hear Pete Buttigieg at a town hall.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hello. Can I get you checked in, sir?

KHALID: As soon as you walk in the door, volunteers ask for your contact info. Campaigns traditionally collect this information so they can call you and make sure you show up on caucus day.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Bob, you want a sticker?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Everybody knows you've been checked in.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you very much.


KHALID: About 300 people have shown up - some super-fans, some recently committed to Buttigieg and some who are still not sure what to think.

So have you decided who you'll be caucusing for?

KIM DOUGHTY: Not for sure. No.

KHALID: That's 66-year-old Kim Doughty.

DOUGHTY: I think Pete looks like a young Kennedy type. But there is that question about whether he has enough experience. Part of me says he'd make a better vice presidential candidate.

KHALID: Twice in one night, I heard people over the age of 65 compare the 38-year-old Pete Buttigieg to John F. Kennedy.

ALAN STECKMAN: I think we all remember Jack Kennedy fondly.

KHALID: Alan Steckman, a 73-year-old retired college professor, is introducing Buttigieg onstage tonight.

STECKMAN: And I consider Mayor Pete as being a Kennedy type. I see him as being young enough to stimulate people who were then my age.

KHALID: Polling shows most of the people Buttigieg is stimulating are older voters like Steckman. Younger voters prefer Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. In some ways, it seems that what these voters are saying is that Buttigieg is what a young person ought to be. They praise his military record and his calm demeanor. Buttigieg walks out in a crisp white shirt and blue suit jacket to the 2018 pop hit "High Hopes."



KHALID: This is his fourth stop of the day. The events are efficient, and the tone is polite. Buttigieg doesn't rattle off specific policy plans or talk much about his personal story. Instead, he talks about a vision. He asks voters to imagine a different future.


BUTTIGIEG: So I want you to picture it in as much detail as you can how it will feel the first day that the sun comes up over Mason City, over Iowa, over America, and Donald Trump is no longer the president of the United States.


KHALID: He talks about faith, freedom and patriotism.


BUTTIGIEG: My sense of patriotism, my love of country begins with the understanding that our country consists of people. You can't love a country if you hate half of the people in it.

KHALID: And he ends with a message of hope, a clear nod to President Obama.


BUTTIGIEG: 2008, Iowa made it possible for a candidate whose very name made his campaign extremely improbable.

KHALID: Buttigieg speaks for 10 to 15 minutes and then takes questions from the audience. A common question he's asked even among mostly white crowds is what he's going to do to gain more support from black voters. His basic response is that people need to get to know him better. But then he adds...


BUTTIGIEG: There's more work to do. And you know, so many black voters I talk to are feeling frustrated and taken for granted - but not only being kicked around by the Republican Party, but often taken for granted by the Democratic Party.

KHALID: Tonight's rally is in a county, like a lot of counties Buttigieg visits, that voted for President Obama and then flipped to President Trump. Buttigieg is trying to make a pitch to people he refers to in his campaign speeches as future former Republicans.


BUTTIGIEG: Gentleman in the Trump 2020 hat - let's see if I can make any progress here.

KHALID: This is the last question. It's about Social Security and the middle class, nothing too controversial. Buttigieg answers it, and then he leans over to say hello.

BUTTIGIEG: Well, I appreciate your coming over and joining.

ALLAN KINGERY: I think we can come and have just different opinions and still get along without being...


KINGERY: Don't - people don't need to be rude.

BUTTIGIEG: Exactly. I hope so. Well, I appreciate...

KINGERY: Can I get a picture?

BUTTIGIEG: Of course. Yeah.

KHALID: The man in the Trump 2020 hat is Allan Kingery. He works at a local egg processing plant, and he says he's most likely going to vote for Trump for reelection. But as different as Buttigieg and Trump might seem, Kingery says he notices one similarity.

KINGERY: They got good stage presence. I can see him as being very presidential.

KHALID: Buttigieg's rallies are low-drama, but to his fans, they are still electric. He's swarmed by people wanting to shake his hand, get an autograph or take a picture with him.

KIM BRACKLEY: I got 10 grandkids coming up, and they need you.

KHALID: That last voice talking to Buttigieg is Kim Brackley. In 2016, she liked Bernie Sanders. She says she still likes a lot of the Vermont senator's ideas, but...

BRACKLEY: I'm looking for someone, too, that I really think can hold his own against Trump.

KHALID: And she thinks Buttigieg has the best bet.

BRACKLEY: Mayor Pete is professional.

KHALID: As I was about to leave, I noticed Kim Doughty. He's the undecided Iowan I had met earlier who compared Buttigieg to JFK.

So you got any clarity on what you're going to do?

DOUGHTY: No. It's more confusing now because I am more impressed.

KHALID: But there's still one thing giving him pause about the former mayor of a small city.

DOUGHTY: Just the fact that he hasn't been there. It's different. Washington, D.C., is a different place.

KHALID: He feels like knowing how to navigate the system in D.C. is valuable even though being a creature of Washington is not a virtue to many voters.

Asma Khalid, NPR News, Mason City, Iowa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.