Deb Tekippe spent much of this year convinced she would support Joe Biden in his 2020 bid for president, but the more she has seen of him on the stump in Iowa and in debates on television, the less confident she has become.
So, on a recent rainy evening she found herself crammed up against the bleachers in Decorah’s high school gymnasium to see South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. She came away intrigued.
“I was all in for Joe Biden, but now I’m wondering what happened with him, you know? It’s obvious that he’s fading,” said Tekippe, 63, a retired nurse who now says she won’t caucus for Biden and is strongly considering Buttigieg. “Pete is on his way up. There is a lot of enthusiasm for him, and there are so many people who really want to believe in their candidate, and you have to see him in person to see how impressive he is.”
Tekippe’s experience reflects the new reality in Iowa: Buttigieg has emerged as the major alternative to Biden among moderate voters the former vice president has counted on as the bedrock of his campaign in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.
A new Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday found Buttigieg in second place in Iowa, a single percentage point behind Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and ahead of Sen. Bernie Sanders in third and Biden in fourth. That followed a recent New York Times/Siena College poll that had Buttigieg with slightly more support than Biden in the state, placing him third behind the more liberal Warren and Sanders.
The Midwestern mayor not only has caught Biden in the polls, but his campaign is better funded, has drawn larger and louder crowds at events, and has shown signs of a more effective ground operation in a state where the former vice president is making his third bid for the White House. The question remains whether Buttigieg can turn that momentum into permanent support ahead of the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3.
Those advantages were on full display in recent days as the top 13 candidates in the field flocked to Des Moines for the state Democratic party’s annual fall fundraising dinner, an event so large this year that it drew more than 13,000 people to the downtown sports arena.
There, Buttigieg’s supporters made up about one-quarter of the crowd, giving their candidate the loudest applause of the night. Biden had the smallest group of supporters among the major candidates -- with the exception of Sanders, who drew around 1,000 people to a rally outside but didn’t buy tickets for supporters inside.
The enthusiasm gap between Biden and Buttigieg was even more evident in the hours before the main event.
More than 2,300 people stood in a steady rain for a Buttigieg rally in a downtown plaza where Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Ben Harper performed, and the candidate gave a speech and thanked the “Barnstormers for Pete,” a group of die-hard supporters that travels the country to boost the mayor’s candidacy.
“Well, friends, this is what it feels like when you realize you are definitely going to be the next president of the United States!” Buttigieg said to a loud roar from the poncho-clad crowd moments before he led them in a march through downtown to the arena. “This is what it feels like to build a movement. This is what it feels like to insist on change.”
A block away and a few minutes later, Biden welcomed his supporters in a convention center ballroom that remained a quarter empty. About one-third of the crowd sat on folding chairs in an accessibility seating section filled with seniors as the local cover band Pork Tornadoes played to little applause.
Harold Schaitberger, the longtime president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, and former second lady Jill Biden talked longer than the candidate, who gave an unusually short five-minute speech. Biden spent most of it telling the story of how he asked his wife to marry him five times before she said yes and thanking the firefighters union, which has endorsed his campaign.
“This is all about you, all about you getting people involved in the caucuses. It’s hand-to-hand,” Biden said from the stage. “Get involved directly in the campaign. Become precinct captains, if you’re not. Volunteer to make phone calls, knock on doors. Ladies and gentleman, it all starts in Iowa on Feb. 3, and we’re going to win Iowa.”
As the crowd filed out, campaign aides held fists full of tickets for the big dinner, many of them presumably for the six upper-deck sections of the arena that Biden’s campaign had purchased tickets for but ended up empty. Giant stacks of free, white T-shirts that read “Ridin’ with Biden” also went unclaimed while in the room next door, Buttigieg supporters who couldn’t score tickets filed into an “overflow" watch party.
“Am I disappointed there were shirts left on a table? No, because I don’t think that reflects the actual operation," Schaitberger said as he came to Biden’s defense the next day at a fish fry in Cedar Rapids. "Enthusiasm is important, but so is commitment.”
So far, both campaigns have more than 20 offices and in excess of 100 paid staffers in the state, but Schaitberger predicts that Biden’s ground game will turn out loyal Iowans likely to attend caucuses while implying Buttigieg’s newfound support is more fickle. He dismissed the South Bend mayor as the “flavor of the moment” and accused him of busing in hundreds of people from Indiana.
In the 2008 presidential race, Biden made a similar accusation when then-Sen. Barack Obama gave a soaring speech at the Des Moines dinner and flexed his campaign’s organizational muscle by drawing the largest and loudest crowd to the event. Biden needled Obama by welcoming that section of the hall with a “Hello, Chicago."
In the end, though, it turned out the junior senator from Illinois did, in fact, have the strongest grassroots operation in Iowa, one that launched him toward the presidency.
“Yes,” Schaitberger grudgingly agreed with a smile. “Yes, he did.”
‘They will vote for Joe’
With less than three months until the caucuses, the state of play in Iowa remains fluid. The Times/Siena poll found 65% of Iowa voters who picked a top candidate still could be convinced to caucus for someone else. The Quinnipiac poll, taken in the days before and after the Democratic dinner, placed that number at 52%.
Both polls concluded the race is a wide-open, four-candidate contest -- with the front-running quartet in a statistical dead heat.
The Times/Siena poll found Warren leading with 22% of the vote, followed by Sanders with 19%, Buttigieg with 18% and Biden with 17%. Quinnipiac had Warren leading with 20%, followed by Buttigieg with 19%, Sanders with 17% and Biden with 15%. The next closest candidate in both polls was Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar collecting around 5%.
Polls are little more than a snapshot in time, but this latest one reinforced a trend of Biden falling back to the pack after months of being considered the front-runner. They also emphasized the showdown between Biden and Buttigieg for the party’s more centrist voters.
For example, the Quinnipiac poll found that voters who identify as “moderates and conservatives” made up 50% of likely caucusgoers, and among them, Buttigieg received 19% support and Biden 18%. Among the 24% of voters identifying as “somewhat liberal,” Warren led with 29%, followed by Buttigieg with 24%. Of the voters who consider themselves “very liberal,” Sanders finished with 32% to Warren’s 30%, according to the poll results.
So far, Biden has remained the leader in more widespread national polls, where voters are familiar with his history as vice president, but perhaps are not tuning in as closely to the race as voters in early states. He trails, however, in fundraising, ending the last quarter with about $9 million in cash on hand compared with $34 million for Sanders, $26 million for Warren and $23 million for Buttigieg.
During a recent stop in Maquoketa, Biden stood in front of bales of hay and a few pumpkins, and read off a pair of teleprompters as he gave a speech to a small group of about 100 caucusgoers gathered in a metal barn at the Jackson County Fairgrounds.
Using teleprompters for such an intimate setting is unusual -- particularly in Iowa, where voters welcome spontaneous interactions with candidates -- but it reflected efforts from Biden’s staff to keep him from wandering off message. His speech included some not-so-subtle jabs at Buttigieg.
“The next president is going to inherit a divided nation and a world in disarray. It’s going to require someone who can truly unite this nation at home, and someone who can command the respect of world leaders on day one,” Biden said. “There’s not going to be a whole lot of time for on-the-job training.”
After the speech, Biden took questions, including one on health care from Susan Reighard, who said she owes thousands of dollars in medical bills after undergoing a surgery. Biden must have had Buttigieg on the brain, because in his response, he used the mayor’s catchphrase of “Medicare for All Who Want It” to describe his own plan.
Reighard, however, didn’t notice and said afterward she never was on Buttigieg’s “bandwagon." She arrived to the event undecided, but left backing Biden after hearing him explain his plan would add a so-called public option to offer coverage to more people while competing with private insurance.
“I like his character. I’ve always respected him,” said Reighard, 58, a substitute teacher and former nurse. “And him being able to beat Trump is a big part of it. We can’t have another four years like this. It’s just crazy.”
Patrick Johnson and Cheri Canier left the Maquoketa event ready to caucus for Biden, too, citing his ability to pull Midwest voters away from President Donald Trump.
“I know a lot of people who are either independent or Republicans who can’t stomach what’s going on now. They would have a really hard time with Sanders or Warren, but they will vote for Joe Biden,” said Johnson, 60, a retired locomotive engineer. “That’s why it’s so important that Joe be our candidate.”
The couple from nearby Clinton said they liked Buttigieg but favored Biden as a known commodity.
“I think he’s got a really bright future, but the thing about Pete is this isn’t a time for that right now,” said Canier, 64. “The time right now is to do what we need to do to get moderates and independents to vote for the Democrats.”
Farther north in Dubuque, Dan Corken cited similar reasoning for why he’s spent the last several weeks knocking on doors for Biden in the northeast corner of the state.
Corken, who attended a Biden rally at Loras College and once coached the women’s basketball team there, called Biden the “one candidate who can unite this country" and said Buttigieg "needs more seasoning.” In explaining why he supported Biden, he noted how he has a vacation home in Wisconsin near Lake Geneva and described working a Democratic booth at the county fair there this summer.
“All the farmers there just kept walking by us like we had the plague. It scares me,” said Corken, 69. “Biden is the right person at this time that we need to bring people together, whatever his limitations are with his style.”
Biden has been gaffe-prone on the campaign trail, has given uneven performances in the televised debates and has had trouble staying focused on his campaign message at times. Corken recalled seeing Biden in Dubuque right after he announced his campaign and said, “he was all over the place. You could barely track what he was saying.”
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“He’s rusty, and he’s up against some really good debaters," he said. “But it’s one thing to be a good debater and another thing to be a good governor.”
‘This guy is surging’
In nearly 50 interviews at campaign events in 10 different Iowa cities and towns over the course of six days, voters repeatedly cited Biden’s stage presence and debate performances as reasons they were willing to consider other candidates.
At a Warren event in the central Iowa town of Grinnell, Mary Newton said she had narrowed her choice to the Massachusetts senator and Buttigieg while she had growing doubts about Biden.
“Biden has slipped. We’ve seen him a couple times. I think he’s a great guy, but I think Trump would tear him apart," said Newton, 63, who lives in the nearby town of Newton. "He makes a lot of little mistakes, and I guess that’s OK, but Trump is going to jump all over those little miscues. I like him, but there’s just too much baggage there, I think.”
Though few voters brought it up, Biden and his son Hunter Biden currently are at the heart of the ongoing U.S. House impeachment inquiry into Trump, who has been accused of holding up military aid to Ukraine while pressuring its president to launch an investigation aimed at harming the former vice president’s political prospects.
Many caucusgoers cited Buttigieg’s demeanor and background as much as his campaign platform in weighing whether to caucus for him over Biden. The rising millennial’s biography is better known now than when he launched his campaign from near-obscurity six months ago in an old Studebaker factory in his hometown: Harvard grad, Rhodes scholar, veteran of the war in Afghanistan, two-term mayor and first openly gay presidential candidate from a major party.
In contrast to Biden, Buttigieg rarely gives anything but concise, targeted answers to questions and frequently lands well-rehearsed lines that reemphasize his message of offering generational change while uniting a nation. There were no teleprompters on his recent three-day bus tour across northern Iowa that mostly focused on counties that had been won by Obama but then voted for Trump.
That included a stop in the northern Iowa town of Waverly, were Jim Vowels stood in the back of Waverly-Shell Rock High School’s cafeteria. The room was so packed that the crowd of more than 500 stretched down a pair of hallways where voters craned their necks to get a look at the presidential hopeful.
Vowels said he started out backing Biden but now isn’t so sure, and he’s also looking at Buttigieg and Klobuchar. He said the most important factor to him is who can beat Trump.
“How would you debate Donald Trump?" Vowels asked Buttigieg during the town hall. "He’s such a mean, nonfactual debater who makes a lie sound like a truth. If you’re on a stage with him, how will you combat that?”
Buttigieg responded by contending that many of Trump’s arguments against Democrats won’t work with him, an answer that also included a reference to the president receiving a medical exemption from military service in Vietnam after being diagnosed with bone spurs in his feet.
“He’s going to say socialism this, socialism that, but I come from the heartland. ... He’s going to say swamp this and swamp that, but I don’t go to work in Washington. I’m right here in the Midwest,” Buttigieg said. “And, of course, I’m happy to have a debate over the difference between his approach to be called to serve in the military and mine.”
The crowd roared with approval, and Vowels said he loved the answer, would keep reading Buttigieg’s autobiography and continue to do his homework. But he made it clear he’s worried about Biden in a matchup with the president.
“Trump lives by the motto that if you don’t have the facts and you don’t have the truth, you just speak louder and beat your fists on the table,” Vowels said. “I want someone who is so sure that they don’t fold or let Trump get to them, and I’m not sure Joe can handle that. Can he stand there and not get mad, not make a mistake and say something he won’t regret later? I don’t know.”
In Decorah, retired minister Wayne Ellingson said he was surprised when he arrived early at the high school to find a line of people three blocks long waiting in the rain to get good spots near the stage for Buttigieg’s rally. Afterward, he said he was taken aback by the raw enthusiasm and energy of the event, which drew more than 1,000 people to a town of less than 8,000.
Ellingson, too, is trying to decide among Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar. All three, he said, hold similar views on health care and other important issues, and for him the decision will come down to who has the most momentum. For now, he said, Buttigieg is in the lead.
“Biden was my guy at the very beginning, but he’s faded in the background a little bit,” said Ellingson, 71. “I’ve been out to see a number of rallies for the other candidates, but they don’t have anywhere near the enthusiasm that Pete has.”
After attending a Buttigieg rally in a middle school cafeteria in Mason City, Misty Gomez cited Buttigieg’s ability to connect with a new generation of voters as the reason she’ll caucus for him in February.
“With Pete, he just has this hope in him, this freshness, this excitement that is hitting us,” said Gomez, 42, who works in a dental office and lives in the small town of Kensett. “He’s got youth on his side.”
In dozens of interviews with voters considering caucusing for Buttigieg, Gomez was the exception, not the rule. Most said they had been eager to hear Buttigieg speak, had him on their short list of candidates but were unwilling to fully commit.
Ted Crawford personifies this careful approach.
He listened intently as Buttigieg spoke in the Mason City cafeteria. It was not the first time he’d heard the mayor deliver a speech.
In August, Crawford and friends attended the Democratic Wing Ding dinner in Clear Lake, and he told the Tribune then that he was tentatively supporting Biden, but had taken notice of rousing speeches by Buttigieg and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.
“If tonight were the caucus, I’d probably support Biden, but I’m very, very impressed and it’s moving more to a toss-up for me. Pete is tremendously intelligent, he’s focused, he’s educated, he’s got great charisma and great leadership,” said Crawford, 69, a retired teacher who lives in Mason City. "And although I have growing concerns about Joe Biden, I’m still not sure about Pete’s electability. But this guy is definitely surging, so we’ll see.”
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