As we sat next to each other and waited for the ex-mayor of South Bend, Ind., to take the stage, Faircloth told me she had been an enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump in 2016. At the time, it seemed like a comfortable fit for a social conservative who opposes abortion and same-sex marriage.
But Faircloth, a retiree, has growing reservations about the president’s character, his environmental policies and his incessant tweeting. She was especially appalled when Trump intervened to prevent the military from disciplining Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL accused of war crimes. “I think I’ve gotten to the point where I need to step outside the box,” she said.
Of the dozen candidates left in the Democratic primary race, Faircloth told me, only Buttigieg, a Naval Reserve veteran who served in Afghanistan, has the kind of conciliatory message and even temperament that just might “push me over the edge.” (Though the caucuses are technically open only to Democrats, Republicans and independents are allowed to participate if they switch their registration, and they can do it as late as the night of the caucuses.)
Are there enough people like her — the folks Buttigieg calls “future former Republicans” — to propel him to a victory on Feb. 3? Unlikely. But Iowa’s quirky process is known for surprises, and this year the outcome seems especially hard to predict.
Everything is in motion. Each poll seems to produce a new front-runner. But the margins are narrow, and with just about two weeks to go, it is more instructive to pay attention to the unusually high number of people — nearly 60 percent in the latest Des Moines Register/CNN survey — who have yet to lock in on their final choice.
On my other side that day sat Tiff Williams, an ordained minister who directs a Christian camp on the outskirts of Newton.
She had intended to support Cory Booker, but now that the New Jersey senator has dropped out of the race, Williams is struggling to choose among the candidates who remain. “Not-Donald-Trump is not good enough to get my vote,” she said. She is worried that another four years of Trump might mean the end of Obamacare, which reduced her family’s monthly insurance costs from $1,500 to $350.
Buttigieg made his pitch, and Faircloth was sold. “Yes,” she whispered under her breath when Buttigieg denounced “a president who thinks pardoning war criminals makes you pro-military.”
But Williams, the Democrat, left disappointed. She thought Buttigieg should have taken more questions from the audience rather than spending most of the event delivering a stump speech. Williams plans to catch a few more of the candidates if she can but is most intrigued by billionaire businessman Tom Steyer, who she thinks might be able to “call Trump’s bluff on the economy.”
Faircloth and Williams are not a scientific sample, of course. They were simply two women who happened to be sitting next to an empty chair I found at a crowded campaign event. But they are evidence of how twisted the path can be for individual Iowans as they pick a presidential candidate.
Now comes another curve: Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate.
Three of the five highest-polling contenders — Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) — will be spending most of these final days before the caucuses back in Washington in the Senate chamber, doing their constitutional duty as jurors. That leaves the other two, Buttigieg and former vice president Joe Biden, at an advantage. Both are planning to jam their schedules with a lot of quality facetime with Iowa voters.
If the 1999 impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton is any guide, Trump’s could stretch not only past the Iowa caucuses but make it impossible for senator-candidates to campaign in the run-up to the Feb. 11 New Hampshire primary. They will be sending out surrogates to speak on their behalf, conducting early-morning interviews by satellite and teleconferencing into evening town halls.
But in these early states, where impeachment rarely comes up among the questions that candidates are asked, there is no substitute for being there to answer the ones that people do raise. Two precious weeks remain, and the voters who might matter the most have yet to be convinced.