The former South Bend, Ind., mayor seemed to sense that indecision. For the better part of an hour, he made an impassioned case for why Iowans should take a chance on a young political newcomer whose candidacy would make history.
“Watching the news out of Washington, it’s exhausting, right? It makes you tempted to switch it off and walk away. But we can’t do that. That’s how the cynics would win,” Buttigieg said. “And the good news about having the fortune to be alive in the year 2020 is that history will record how we responded to that cynicism by not giving in to the exhaustion, by turning around and doing something completely different.”
Buttigieg has personal experience trying to persuade skeptical Iowans to look past better-known candidates with longer political résumés in favor of someone new.
A little over 12 years ago, Buttigieg, along with two of his closest friends, spent the final week before the 2008 caucuses in rural southwest Iowa, trying to turn out voters for Barack Obama in some of the smallest, most conservative towns in the state.
It was Buttigieg’s first time in Iowa, and he would later describe the experience as transformational. Going door-to-door, Buttigieg, who was about to turn 26, met recently enlisted young men who told him they wouldn’t be around to caucus because they were due at basic training. Many of them were younger and less advantaged than he, and he said it led him to reconsider his own duty to serve. He later signed up for the Navy Reserve.
Those seven days also gave him his first glimpse into the psyche of Iowa voters — how seriously they take the responsibility of vetting political candidates, their willingness to listen and welcome organizers into their homes, and how their decision on whom to caucus for is one that is often deeply personal and subject to change right up to the last minute.
“A vote is a two-way street. You’re asking somebody to give you or your campaign their vote, and they’re asking you to do right by them and to do something that’ll affect the problems that they’re dealing with on a daily basis,” Buttigieg said in a recent Washington Post interview. “I think about that a little more richly just because of those days of being there and getting an earful sometimes. … The faces, the stories of the people — we were affected by all of it.”
Buttigieg and two of his best friends from Harvard — Nathaniel Myers and Ryan Rippel — met up just after Christmas in December 2007. Eager to join the crush of young people who had descended on the state to help elect the first black president, Buttigieg called an acquaintance he knew in the Obama campaign and asked where they could be of greatest help.
They were dispatched to Creston, Iowa, a town of roughly 7,000 people about 75 minutes southwest of Des Moines, off Highway 34 in the middle of rolling agricultural land. Though the Obama campaign had been flooded with volunteers across the state, many had declined to go to Creston, where organizers oversaw a region that required hours of driving each day to reach the remote, often sparsely populated small towns where they were trying to turn out the vote.
The counties around Creston are among the poorest in the state, places that had gone through job and population loss, and some local school districts were beginning a wave of consolidation that has overtaken much of small-town Iowa in recent years.
“I was beginning to think we were going to be the only organizers not to get a single out-of-state volunteer,” recalled Nyssa Aragon, one of two Obama field staffers based in the Creston office. “It wasn’t glamorous being in rural Iowa. It wasn’t where the action was.”
It was also not Obama country. Most voters in the area were not Democrats, but the Obama strategy was to try to make inroads in rural areas, as part of a broader effort to overcome the perception that a black man running for president could not win support outside cities.
Buttigieg and the other volunteers faced other challenges, too. Instead of mobile apps loaded with voter lists, as many campaign workers use today, they had printed pages of voter contact information. In place of Google Maps, which probably wouldn’t have worked in an area where cellular service remains spotty even today, they relied on old-fashioned maps to find their way around an area where the gravel roads ride like old washboards and where houses are few and far between.
The men had little experience canvassing. And even though they had spent several winters in Boston, they were ill-prepared for hours outdoors every day over an especially cold Iowa week.
In a rented Toyota sedan, they traveled to visit voters in small towns including Mount Ayr, Leon, Decatur City and Lamoni — splitting up a campaign-generated list and knocking on doors from morning until dark, often taking breaks at a local Dairy Queen or a diner to warm up and regroup.
“This was a new experience to really talk to people like this,” Buttigieg recalled. “And what I found was, first of all, you can’t assume where somebody is going to be. We were in an area where a lot of people weren’t Democrats to begin with, and those who were were more likely to be for [former senator John] Edwards. But they would hear us out when we were talking about Obama. And sometimes, as you do when you go door-to-door, somebody, because you represent a presidential campaign, would just pour out everything that was on their mind, everything they were upset about.”
The issues were not much different from those confronting Buttigieg today as he travels throughout Iowa — concern about job losses, the rising cost of health care and a sense that small towns have been forgotten by politicians in Washington.
Late one night, after a particularly long day of canvassing, the three friends consulted the map, looking for the quickest way back to the Obama field office in Creston. They turned down a dirt road marked with an ominous sign warning drivers to proceed at their own risk. Their Toyota had made it down other snow-covered roads, but soon they found themselves stuck in a ditch, unable to move. With no cell service, they couldn’t call for help.
The three got out of the car and, without a shovel, tried to dig the tires out using their campaign clipboards. When that didn’t work, they hiked through the snow to a house up the road. Though it was after 10 p.m., an elderly woman opened the door for the young men, who stood on her doorstep shivering and covered in snow. “It was so cold and so late. … She did not know what to make of us,” Myers said.
The woman called her son, a farmer who lived down the road, for help. She made the men stand on the porch while they waited. Soon a man drove up in a giant truck. All three distinctly remember how he was dressed — in a pair of Carhartt coveralls and giant boots. “It looked like he could endure anything,” Rippel said. “We felt so small next to him.”
The farmer stepped out of the cab and looked the trio up and down, staring at their wet shoes. “You boys aren’t dressed for being out in this cold,” he told them. Soon, they piled into his truck and headed down the road toward their car, where he produced a chain. One end would go around the axle of the Toyota and the other to the back of his truck, he explained. Buttigieg and his friends nodded.
No one moved.
“One of you boys going to hook this up to your car or am I going to get down on my hands and knees and do it for you?” the farmer asked them.
As they scrambled, the farmer asked them why they were there so late. Buttigieg told him they were volunteering for Obama. “Oh? He’s my second choice,” the man replied. His first choice was former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson. He had more Washington experience.
With Buttigieg behind the wheel, the Toyota was soon pulled out of the snow and back on safer terrain. The men tried to pay the farmer, but he wouldn’t take their money.
Twelve years later, the farmer, Bill Daughton, still lives along the same rough road outside Kellerton, Iowa, and was shocked to find out one of those stranded campaign workers that he dug out of the snow on that frigid night so long ago is now running for president.
“Really?” he said when reached by phone recently. He remembered the men well, how badly dressed they were for the cold. He recalled joking with them that he wold bail them out of the snow only if they’d work for Richardson. But the 79-year-old farmer wasn’t very familiar with Buttigieg’s campaign. He was undecided about whom to caucus for — or whether he would caucus at all. “I don’t really do that stuff anymore,” he said politely. “I just don’t.”
On the night of the 2008 caucuses, Buttigieg and his friends split up to watch tiny communities gather and cast their votes. Obama didn’t win those counties, but he did well enough to capture delegates.
“At a human level, you can reach people,” Buttigieg said of the lessons he learned in Iowa. “I understand why south-central rural Iowa was not viewed as big Obama country. But we were out there, and I think we got some supporters. And it made a difference that we were there.”
The former mayor has traveled relentlessly across Iowa in recent weeks, pitching himself as a Washington outsider and progressive realist who can help bridge the nation’s partisan divides. In many ways, he has sought to replicate the magic that sparked Obama’s rise, seeking to capture the hearts and minds of Iowans who gambled on a young senator from Illinois who offered soaring promises of hope and change.
“I’m here in the name of an idea that I know has gone a little bit out of style in politics because of what we’re up against. And that’s hope. The reason I want to speak of hope is that it’s actually needed in order to do anything. It’s needed in order to fight injustice. That’s needed in order to fix problems,” Buttigieg said in Burlington this week. “I think it’s because running for office is an act of hope. And I believe volunteering, caucusing, even voting, that, too, is an act of hope. And my goal is to be able to look to you to spread that hope to the people you know, in your lives who are this close to switching it off entirely and instead spread whatever hope propelled you to take the time to come in here and be with me and discuss the future of our country.”
As Buttigieg spoke, Myers and Rippel stood along a back wall, back in Iowa for day to watch their close friend, fellow Obama volunteer and now presidential candidate. They were better dressed this time, in heavy coats and boots. “It’s still freaking cold here,” Myers said, with a laugh.