DUBUQUE, Iowa — Pete Buttigieg settled into an armchair on the campaign bus, took a sip of his Goose Island 312, and braced for the onslaught.
If you’re the nominee, how do you win Pennsylvania?
Do you see health care as a defining difference in this race?
Would you consider yourself “woke”?
Over four days, Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and one of the top five polling Democrats running for president, fielded questions ranging from music preferences to whether the House of Representatives should begin impeachment proceedings. (Phish and Dave Matthews Band, and yes, they should).
The ride through Iowa with reporters, entirely on the record (meaning phones and eyes always on him), was modeled on John McCain’s famous Straight Talk Express from the 2000 Republican presidential race. Buttigieg’s reboot wasn’t quite as provocative as the McCain ride, which has been described as “a “joyful, insurgent romp.”
While McCain was known for speaking without much of a filter, Buttigieg was candid but careful. In a clear sign of how political reporting has changed in two decades, most of Buttigieg’s more compelling answers were online before anyone had even gotten off the bus at the next stop, leaving some to dub it the Straight to Twitter Express.
For Buttigieg’s campaign, the bus tour was a way to drum up interest via a press corps often starved for access, showcasing a candidate not prone to gaffes. The bus made 11 stops in Iowa over four days, meeting the folks who will cast Democrats’ first votes in the state’s Feb. 3 caucuses. A strong performance could slingshot Buttigieg, now polling fourth or fifth. A lackluster showing could send him home.
So far his approach has worked. While senators and governors have dropped out of the race, the small-town mayor’s favorability rating and name ID have risen.
A Monmouth poll of New Hampshire came out while he was on the bus, showing him just two points behind Sen. Bernie Sanders, who was third.
“Four-way race,” he said, grinning.
(In most national polls, he trails former Vice President Joe Biden, Sanders, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren by double digits, and sometimes California Sen. Kamala Harris by a few points. In the latest Iowa poll, he’s at 9%, trailing Sanders at 11%.) He struggles among African American voters, something he’s said the campaign, which just hired a black outreach director, is working on.
At rallies in Elkader, Dubuque, Clinton, and Davenport, Buttigieg ran off the bus and onto stages, where he argued the country needs “bold ideas” that also unify. “Answering the crisis of belonging in America means understanding where everyone has a place in the future,” he said. He advocated gun control, an end to the Electoral College, and a health system that prioritizes mental health.
He told crowds ranging from more than 1,000 at a university in Davenport to a few hundred in a small park in Clinton that he’s well positioned to take on President Donald Trump. He has private-sector experience, “which means I’m not a socialist,” he said. He doesn’t work in Washington, and while “Trump loves to hug the flag,” he actually served in battle. “I’m familiar with a worse sort of incoming than a tweet full of typos,” he said to applause and laughter.
Several people said they saw Buttigieg as an alternative to the front-runner, Biden.
“He has that Midwest experience that Joe has with blue-collar workers,” said Patrick Wolak, 21, of Dubuque, “But being young and openly gay, he brings a different energy that I think appeals to progressive and blue-collar workers the same.”
One key difference between the 37-year-old Buttigieg and the two progressives ahead of him, Warren and Sanders, is that he supports a public health-care coverage option, or what he calls “Medicare for all who want it,” but would not end private insurance. He launched a TV ad campaign in Iowa this week, “Your Choice,” focused on that plan.
“I think his youth is a good thing,” said William Michaelson, a retired minister and chef from Clinton who also likes Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. He called both “really Midwest.”
“It means, or at least it used to mean, in the middle,” Michaelson said. “It meant we could work together.”
That’s a message Buttigieg has tried to broadcast. If he is the nominee, he said, he can deliver swing states like Pennsylvania by exciting the party base and attracting more moderate, white, working-class voters who may have backed Trump in 2016.
“We have to do both,” he said on the bus. “We have this false choice, it makes it sound like you can either be for economic justice for autoworkers or for racial justice for minorities when it’s the same idea of fairness that propels both.”
Buttigieg didn’t criticize any of his opponents, despite plenty of baiting. He said he thinks Warren’s pitch has “more to do with fighting and I’m more interested in outcomes.” He described Biden’s ideology with caution, as “implicitly … neoliberal.”
Aboard the bus stocked with beer, snacks, and LaCroix seltzer, reporters found out his favorite Broadway musicals are Hamilton and Come From Away. If he weren’t running for president, he said, he might be a long haul truck driver, listening to podcasts and learning new languages, or a literary critic.
When he was little, he wanted to be a pilot and the walls of his bedroom were covered in flight plans that his dad brought home from work trips.
The constraints of a moving bus made for a less harried feel than the “gaggles,” when reporters surround a candidate after an event until the candidate runs away.
Buttigieg lamented that modern campaigns also offer fewer personal moments with voters.
“I wish I had as many interactions as I had selfies,” he said.
In the era of social media sound bites, Buttigieg acknowledged, coming across as authentic can be tricky. “I do think it’s more important than ever to figure out who you are,” he said. He quoted Carl Sandburg’s poem, “A Father to his Son.” “Above all let him tell himself no lies about himself ….”
Many of the small towns the coach passed through reminded Buttigieg of South Bend, which he’s still running from afar. His team there carried on while he was deployed to Afghanistan for seven months. In comparison, reaching him in the Iowa cornfields is simple.
“This is actually a lot easier,” he said, glancing out the window of the bus. “But it’s still a challenge.”