It’s “about the general election,” said Iowa state Sen. Bill Dotzler, who has endorsed Buttigieg and noted that Iowans must be registered Democrats to participate in the caucuses on Feb. 3. “It’s about sending a message to Democrats that this is the candidate who can reach across the political divide and try to bring people together.”
Buttigieg is hardly the only candidate closing with that argument. Warren’s campaign is arguing she has the greatest ability to unite and excite the Democratic Party by touting polling showing her with the widest cross-section of support. Biden is running TV ads in Iowa showing him beating Trump in battleground-state polls. On the campaign trail, Amy Klobuchar regularly mentions the 42 Minnesota counties that she won in 2018 that Trump also won in 2016.
But Buttigieg’s surrogates said that going to argue his case on Fox dovetails with his strengths as a candidate — as well as his weaknesses.
“The pushback on Pete is that, A, he’s young, and B, he’s gay,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who was the first member of Congress to endorse Buttigieg last year. “A way he overcomes this double negative message is going into the lion’s den, performing well, and have people come out and say, ‘Hey, I like him. He sounds reasonable.’”
By going on Fox News, “he’s affirming his validity as a national candidate who can beat Donald Trump,” Beyer added.
Onstage Sunday night, Buttigieg quickly faced a string of questions that cut to the core of his electability argument, including his relatively short resume, as the ex-mayor of a 100,000-person city, and his weakness among African American voters.
“If what you’re looking for is the most years spent in Washington, you’ve got a clear choice and it’s not going to be me,” Buttigieg responded to a question about whether he was qualified to be president. “But I would also argue that the kind of experience you have governing on the ground in a city of any size is the kind of experience we need more of in Washington.”
On his low-polling status among black voters, Buttigieg said that “having eight months to introduce yourself is, of course, not the same as having 20 or 30 or 40 years,” tacitly acknowledging Biden’s strong lead among African American voters.
Buttigieg cited his recent visit to South Carolina, when “one of the biggest things I heard” from black voters was “the determination to make sure we get a candidate who can win, and I’m mindful that that’s one of the things you’ve got show, not just tell, and of course Iowa is the first opportunity we’ll get on the calendar to demonstrate that we can do just that,” Buttigieg said.
As Buttigieg has works to ease those reservations, they continue to trail him as he makes his final swing through Iowa, popping up in questions at his other town hall events earlier Saturday and Sunday.
“Out all of the candidates selling electability, Buttigieg has the most uphill climb,” said Sam Roecker, an Iowa-based Democratic consultant who worked on former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s brief presidential bid last year. “Amy Klobuchar has won statewide, Joe Biden has a record of working across the aisle, so it’s hard for [Buttigieg] to be compared to them in that context, and I assume that’s part of the reason why they went on Fox News.”
That go-everywhere strategy is also reflected in Buttigieg’s Iowa travel before the caucuses, drawing hundreds to events in counties across the state that voted for Trump in 2016. His campaign also cut a 15-second digital ad that’s running statewide, reminding voters that “31 counties were flipped from Obama to Trump,” the ad’s narrator says, flashing footage of Buttigieg’s events. “Pete is going everywhere and meeting everyone — this is how we win.”
“I think the difference is going to come in rural areas because everyone else is fighting over Waterloo and Dubuque and Iowa City, and who’s fighting over Storm Lake? Pete Buttigieg is the only one showing up,” said Art Cullen, editor of The Storm Lake Times, who endorsed Warren but attended Buttigieg’s Saturday night event in the 10,000-person city in northwest Iowa. “You can dominate a rural precinct with organization, and he’s got that organization plus [his] presence.”
Buttigieg didn’t take on his primary rivals by name, but he took some veiled shots, even on the grounds of his lack of experience.
“I’ve heard some folks saying, ‘this is no time to take a risk.’ And I agree, but I think the biggest risk that we could take, right now, would be to try to go up against this president with the same old playbook that we’ve been relying on that helps explain how we got here in the first place,” Buttigieg said. “I think it’s time for something completely different.”
One of Buttigieg’s more memorable exchanges in Sunday’s Fox News town hall came when an anti-abortion Democrat asked Buttigieg about softening the party’s platform language around abortion to make the Democratic tent more welcoming of people like her.
“I respect where you’re coming from, and I hope to earn your vote, but I’m not going to try to earn your vote by tricking you. I am pro-choice,” Buttigieg said. “I know that the difference of opinion that you and I have is one that we have come by honestly and the best that I can offer, and it may win your vote and if not, I understand — if we can’t agree on where to draw the line, the next best thing we can do is agree on who should draw the line, and in my view, it’s the woman who’s faced with that decision.”
As Fox News’ Chris Wallace noted, Buttigieg’s questioner did not clap for his answer.