WATERLOO, Iowa – Evoking then-Sen. Barack Obama’s historic victory in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is urging his supporters to “make history one more time.”
“Can I count on you to do that on Monday,” the former mayor of South Bend, Ind. -- who would become the nation’s first openly gay president if elected to the White House -- asked his supporters on Saturday at a large campaign event in this northeastern Iowa city.
With just two days to go until Iowa’s caucuses kick off the presidential nominating calendar, the 38-year old candidate was asking his supporters “to take whatever hope brought you into this room, bottle it up and share it with anybody in your life who is more likely to respond to a word from you than to an ad from me.”
For Buttigieg, a strong finish in Iowa -- and a week later in the first presidential primary state of New Hampshire – is crucial to his hopes of winning the Democratic nomination. But the candidate's seen his support in the polls slip over the past month.
“State’s like Iowa and New Hampshire give a candidate like Pete Buttigieg an opportunity to do something and so far, he’s taken advantage of that opportunity to put himself in the top tier. I think he needs a strong showing in Iowa and New Hampshire in order to continue to generate contributions on line in order to compete in Nevada, South Carolina and Super Tuesday,” veteran Iowa-based Democratic consultant Jeff Link said.
While he won’t say where he needs to finish, Buttigieg told reporters on Saturday that “we need to do very well in Iowa. We’re in it to win it. And we believe we’re going to have a result that will propel us forward.”
Buttigieg’s drawing big crowds -- nearly 550 saw him at the Electric Park Ballroom in Waterloo and more than 700 showed up for his event in Dubuque. The candidate, thanks to his fundraising prowess, has spent plenty of campaign cash to build up a formidable campaign operation in Iowa.
Buttigieg stood at 16 percent support in the most recent poll of likely Democratic caucus goers – behind former Vice President Joe Biden at 23 percent and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont at 21 percent -- and slightly ahead of Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts -- who stood just one percentage point back of Buttigieg.
But Buttigieg's current poll numbers in Iowa pale compared to where he stood in December, when a RealClearPolitics average of surveys in the state put the candidate between 20-25 percent support.
Buttigieg, who served as U.S. Naval Reserve intelligence officer in the war in Afghanistan, has become more aggressive this week in painting a contrasts with both Biden and Sanders as he’s campaigned across the Hawkeye State.
Asked about Buttigieg’s jabs, Biden responded on Thursday during a stop in Pella, Iowa that Buttigieg’s “a good guy” but “he must be deciding things are getting a little tight.”
Buttigieg, when asked if he was getting concerned about his position in Iowa, emphasized in an exclusive interview with Fox News before his Waterloo event that “we love the position we’re in.”
And he highlighted that “I see that caucus-goers are making that final choice and want them to know that they don’t have to choose between the best way to govern and the best way to win. And I’m making it very clear in an honest and respectful, but the very real difference of approach of why compared to Senator Sanders or Vice President Biden or any of the others I’m offering the full package and the right way to govern well and win big.”
Iowa and New Hampshire, which kick off the nominating calendar, are overwhelmingly white states. But the Democratic electorate turns much more diverse when the race moves next to the Nevada caucuses and the South Carolina primary, and then on to the Super Tuesday states.
With Buttigieg’s struggles to resonate with African-American and Latino voters well-documented in the media, a strong finish in the first two states seems imperative.
Democratic strategist Michael Ceraso -- a veteran of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign who served as Buttigieg’s New Hampshire state director before parting ways with the campaign last summer -- emphasized that “a first place finish or a strong second place behind a progressive candidate like Sanders or Warren are the two outcomes the Buttigieg campaign needs.”
And he warned that “any other scenario could mean the media, his donors, and voters from New Hampshire and beyond re-evaluate his candidacy through a critical lens that asks, ‘Is he viable?’”