Brendan McPhillips moved to Des Moines from Philadelphia last April to be Iowa state director for Pete Buttigieg.

McPhillips was a student at Notre Dame when he first met Buttigieg in 2010, a few years before Buttigieg would become mayor of South Bend, Ind. After a series of political jobs — McPhillips managed Helen Gym’s winning 2015 campaign for City Council, John Fetterman’s 2016 U.S. Senate bid in Pennsylvania, Andrew Gillum’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign in Florida — he joined the Buttigieg presidential campaign.

His home, when not on the campaign trail, is the Point Breeze neighborhood of South Philadelphia, with his wife, Jane Slusser, a former chief of staff to Mayor Jim Kenney.

McPhillips, 36, talked to The Inquirer from the Buttigieg campaign headquarters in Des Moines on Thursday (while wearing a Gritty T-shirt, he felt it appropriate to note). The campaign team was still going over precinct-level data after a week of confusing results coming out of the Iowa caucuses. As of Friday, Buttigieg narrowly led Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders among pledged delegates. Sanders led slightly in the popular vote.

Congrats on — what looks to be — a big win for Buttigieg. Iowa’s a huge responsibility - what was your familiarity with the state coming in from Philly?

“I’d never worked an Iowa race before, but I’d managed statewide races. I was a little intimidated. The caucuses are the Super Bowl of politics. So you spend a lot of time talking to people. ... I had a lot of conversations with lifelong Iowans. A big part of our thinking was that especially with the way the Clinton campaign went, not spending enough time in more rural parts of the country ... going to reliable blue counties over and over, we thought it was really important strategically, but also on principle, to campaign everywhere across the state.”

Buttigieg won 60 of 99 counties outright (based on preliminary data) and 21 of 31 Obama-Trump counties. Did you intentionally focus on swing counties?

“We made a point of going to those Obama-Trump pivot counties because there was obviously a lot of potential there. If people in those counties supported Obama, we shouldn’t just accept they’re not going to vote for a Democrat anymore.”

What’s one concrete thing you did differently from other campaigns?

"Instead of recruiting the first batch of volunteers and throwing them on phone bank with random voter file lists, we put those people in the living room, talked to them about why they thought Pete was special, and then we asked them to whip out their phones and jot down however many people in their personal lives might be interested in Pete and make those calls right then and there.

“Then, instead of a 5% contact rate, you’re getting a 50% or higher, and meaningful conversations. That helped us catch up really quickly to people like [Elizabeth] Warren, who had been on the ground with lots of staff for a couple months.”

How did you staff up for actual caucus night?

“Strategically, the other campaigns ran much more traditional operations focused on identifying their supporters and trying to turn them out, which obviously is part of any campaign, but in this campaign it’s been so fluid we realized early the need to focus constantly on persuading people all the way through and during caucus night. We put more focus on identifying precinct captains and team members and training them to be the best possible persuaders they could be.”

Did you go into this thinking Buttigieg needed a first- or second-place Iowa finish to stay in the race?

“Everybody has been making electability the No. 1 issue in this race and Pete has long said the best way to prove you’re electable is to go out and win something, and that’s exactly what we did. So we’re taking that moment onward to New Hampshire.”

What was Monday night like, working for close to a year and then not having any sense of the results?

“We had a confirmed, trained, precinct captain, who was an Iowan, in every precinct across the state and so despite the [Iowa Democratic Party] not having data, we had like 75% of our data come back within a couple hours and we were confident in the data.”

So when Buttigieg gave that criticized early victory speech, he had those numbers?

“Oh yeah, he had the data.”

Any sign that this result is going to help him with nonwhite voters, a bloc with which he polls poorly?

“We did well across all demographics. We led with women. We came in second with nonwhite voters and we showed that we can do well and build a diverse coalition across geography and across demographics.”

What lessons from campaigns in Pennsylvania did you take to Iowa?

“Pennsylvania in 2016 got decimated in some of the more rural and exurban parts of the state — places where we should have, if not won, lost by a lot less. And the lesson from that has never been that we should only focus on those but that it’s a false choice that you either have to pick between urban areas vs. rural ones. The right approach is to talk to everybody.”

Where do you go next? Pennsylvania state director?

“No idea yet — I’d love to come home soon. I know Jane would love for me to come home soon as well, but I told the campaign to point me in the direction of wherever they need me most.”

Oh right, you got married during the heat of this, didn’t you?

"That was definitely an adventure. I think part of the problem of being a campaigner and always on the road with intense hours [is] if you’re not careful, you can easily let life slip you by... so we decided to just pull the trigger and not wait until after the presidential election.

“It was insane because our wedding was actually two weeks before the Polk County Steak Fry in September — these big marquee organizing moments of the caucuses.”

 

Whom do you think your former bosses — Helen Gym and John Fetterman — will endorse?

“I’m sure they wouldn’t want me speaking for them on that one, but considering they’re all local municipal government leaders, I’m sure they’d find a lot of stuff in common [with Buttigieg], so I’ll have to make a pitch to them soon.”

Are you surprised by some of the push-back from Democrats about Buttigieg — be it about his experience or his rise from relative obscurity?

“We came out of nowhere. A year ago people didn’t know who Pete was. They couldn’t pronounce his name. And we built the best organized operation in Iowa and caught fire. Politics can be a little rough and tumble at times and I think more establishment Washington politicians see a new face as a threat and so there’s going to be a little noise, but you gotta remember, Twitter’s not real life and what people actually care about at the end of the day is how are their lives going to improve based on who is the next president.”

Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg with Iowa State Director Brendan McPhillips at an Iowa Farmers Roundtable Conversation and Rural Policy Roll Out in Tipton on Aug. 14, 2019. (Courtesy of Chuck Kennedy/PFA)
Chuck Kennedy
Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg with Iowa State Director Brendan McPhillips at an Iowa Farmers Roundtable Conversation and Rural Policy Roll Out in Tipton on Aug. 14, 2019. (Courtesy of Chuck Kennedy/PFA)