CONCORD, New Hampshire—Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign may be riding a surge in momentum following a strong showing in the Iowa caucuses. But his team is already looking beyond the next primary in New Hampshire, in hopes of building a sustainable operation that could sustain him throughout the primary process.
The former South Bend mayor made the rounds in the Granite State on Tuesday, holding five town halls in one day on not “a whole lot of sleep,” as he put it, the day after the disastrous Iowa caucuses.
But by Wednesday afternoon, the 38-year-old Democrat had abruptly left the state. Following a youth climate town hall in Concord, Buttigieg was off to a place that, by city and sports rivalry standards, might as well be on the other side of the world: New York. And he was going for a reason that’s made his New England rivals—Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—bristle throughout their campaigns: a high-dollar fundraiser.
Buttigieg has remained one of the top 2020 fundraisers during the presidential primary. And he needs that steady cash flow to sustain a campaign that stretches well beyond the first two early states. Sanders, his top rival in New Hampshire, reported raising an eye-popping $25 million in one month. And Warren suggested at a recent stop here that her campaign is looking beyond the Granite State. Less than one month out from Super Tuesday, where the bulk of the delegates are up for grabs, the mayor is similarly strategizing around a prolonged race.
Still, others were quick to criticize his approach.
“It is nuts,” one senior aide to a rival campaign said. “His only path to winning the nomination is to ride the momentum train. He needs a win, win, win in New Hampshire.”
When presented with news that Buttigieg would be leaving New Hampshire for a fundraiser on Manhattan’s Upper East Side less than a week out from the primary, several other competing campaign officials texted similar reactions: “?” and “$.”
Buttigieg’s penchant for tapping wealthy individuals for campaign contributions is one of his starkest points of contrast with Sanders, whose campaign announced on Thursday that it had raised a staggering $25 million in January, exclusively through grassroots donors.
Others downplayed the significance of Buttigieg skipping town for that reason. “You gotta have money,” Andy Smith, the University of New Hampshire’s chief pollster, told The Daily Beast. “Your campaign runs on gas. And he’s not Michael Bloomberg.”
“The idea of retail politics in New Hampshire is overblown,” Smith added.
In an unconventional maneuver, Michael Hale, one of Buttigieg’s political advisers, on Wednesday appeared to signal to super PAC donors that it was “critical” Nevada Democrats push that message leading up through the Feb. 22 caucus.
“Pete’s military experience and closing message from Iowa work everywhere especially in Nevada where it’s critical they see this on the air through the caucus,” Halle tweeted.
“Pete entered the race as a Boy Scout but has corrupted his brand by becoming the candidate of big-money corporate donors,” Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is backing Warren, said in a statement about his fundraiser. “It's a slap in the face of campaign finance law to so brazenly and unethically direct a Super PAC how to spend on his behalf -- all while leaving New Hampshire to do big-money New York fundraisers.”
While Halle’s tweet certainly raised some eyebrows, it’s not against Federal Election Commission rules.
Buttigieg’s campaign has worked overtime to seize on the advantages a state with just over a million people offers. In interviews with The Daily Beast, state staffers seem largely unconcerned with the close caucus results. Indeed, multiple officials said they factored a caucus win into their New Hampshire strategy and that they’re looking to build on the momentum now.
“We’ve always been ready for this moment,” Victoria Williams, Buttigieg’s New Hampshire state director, told The Daily Beast. “It’s only gotten better since Iowa.”
A second staffer directly involved in strategizing after Iowa pointed to a surge in volunteer interest in the days following the caucuses. New Hampshire residents have been sending more supportive emails, inquiring about obtaining campaign materials, and asking for information about how to volunteer before the Feb. 11 primary, the staffer said.
His team also argues the traction here is not explicitly linked to the Iowa results. The mayor’s state team—perceived widely to be one of the most dedicated and organized among the top-tier of contenders—has been at it for a year. Parts of that are easily visible: It’s hard to drive more than 15 minutes without seeing a Buttigieg sign in several areas of the state, including the more urban areas in the south. Others are less obvious: Officials point to 75 staffers, 65 of whom work directly with voter contact, and an army of “highly trained volunteers” working on Buttigieg’s behalf. One training session that took place several months ago was specifically focused on persuading undecided voters to choose Mayor Pete.
“We are positioned really well to capture the momentum and sprint through the finish,” a top state official said.
In two new New Hampshire polls, Buttigieg is gaining steam from his pre-caucus levels.
An Emerson University survey finds Sanders at 31 percent, down just one point since Feb. 3. But Buttigieg has risen to 21 percent during the same time, a surge of 9 points.
A Suffolk University poll shows additional traction: Sanders gained one point, coming in at 25 percent, while Buttigieg gained eight, earning 19 percent of support.
In conversations over the three days immediately following the caucuses, voters, strategists, and campaign surrogates pointed to the increased emphasis and importance of the first-in-the-nation primary’s role—and relative procedural ease—in the nominating process.
“For some reason in Iowa they’re having a little bit of trouble counting votes,” Sanders, whose campaign is arguably the most irked by the messy results, said at a rally in Milford before the State of the Union address Tuesday night. “But I am confident that here in New Hampshire, I know you’ll be able to count your votes on Election Night.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden finished in fourth place with 97 percent of precincts counted, saying he took a “gut punch.” And New Hampshire polls show Warren, who performed better in Iowa than the former VP, but well behind Sanders, has lagged in her neighboring state for months. That dynamic provides a unique opening for Buttigieg: he enjoys a base of older voters similar to Biden's, while also pulling from Warren’s strength with college educated segments of the electorate. Eyeing that, the mayor has spent several weeks contrasting himself with all three.
Current polling here suggests an uptick in momentum for Buttigieg: In the latest WBZ/Boston Globe/Suffolk University tracking poll, the former mayor is narrowing Sanders’ gap, earning 19 percent of support to the senator’s 25 percent. In averages, Sanders still enjoys a comfortable lead, with 25.6 percent to Buttigieg’s 15.
Other surveys suggest that approximately half of New Hampshire voters are still undecided.
In that, Buttigieg’s state team sees an opening. And in the immediate aftermath of Iowa’s chaos, there are initial signs of that strategy gaining traction. By Thursday, he was already back in the state, holding an event with veterans at the Merrimack American Legion.
“When this all started I was a Biden supporter, mostly because he was the best option to beat Trump,” said Chase Denamur, a 33-year-old voter from Litchfield, who is now supporting Buttigieg. “As it’s gone on, I’ve lost a little bit of faith in that.”