LONDONDERRY — The campaign staff of Democrat Pete Buttigieg say they’re trying to run the most accessible and open campaign ever — one inspired by the late Sen. John McCain’s New Hampshire primary upset in 2000.
Last week Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., raced from an ABC News interview with Martha Raddatz at a Derry cafe, to a Londonderry house packed with veterans 10 minutes away, to a town hall in Exeter, all within the span of about three hours. And he stopped at a handful of events in Concord and Keene the following morning.
The weekend prior, he had held a major town hall event in Claremont that was broadcast by Fox News.
Kevin Donohoe, Buttigieg’s New Hampshire communications director, said the mayor held seven events in under 20 hours — and answered dozens of questions from voters on everything from climate change to health care.
“It strikes me as aggressive — like a candidate that wants to hit as much territory as possible as quickly as possible,” said Chris Galdieri, an associate professor of politics at Saint Anselm College.
Galdieri said it makes sense for a lesser-known Indiana mayor to deploy this strategy in an effort to become a household name.
“That pace of events strikes me as consistent with the strategy you’d expect a candidate in Buttigieg’s position to be following,” Galdieri said. “Right know he’s having a bump and there’s a lot of interest in him, so it makes sense to try to maintain that by getting him in front of as many voters as possible.”
Conversely, he said, that’s not a strategy former Vice President Joe Biden would likely follow since he’s enjoying a lead in the early polls and his strategy appears to be a slow roll-out.
What’s unclear is if a frenetic events schedule — getting in front of voters across the state while squeezing in as many interviews with local and national reporters as a candidate can — will have a strong correlation with whom voters choose in the presidential primary next year.
Politics professor Dean Spiliotes at Southern New Hampshire University said he’s seen a lot of Democratic candidates embrace the retail politics ethos and schedule busy tours throughout the state — including Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke. But he said Buttigieg stands out.
“This is not something that I haven’t seen before,” Spiliotes said, but the members of Buttigieg’s campaign “just seem to be doing it at a high-intensity level.”
He said seven events in 20 hours is probably on the high end, compared to other candidates’ schedules. And he estimates O’Rourke and Booker are close, with an average of five or six events crammed into a 24-hour period.
By the numbers, most of Buttigieg’s primary opponents have made more public campaign stops here in New Hampshire than he has. Since the beginning of 2019, 15 of his Democratic rivals had more Granite State events, topped by former U.S. Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., who’s had nearly 100.
But there’s little doubt Buttigieg is a candidate on the move thanks to surprisingly strong fundraising in the first quarter of 2019 followed by televised town hall performances that drew solid ratings and positive national media reviews.
Since the middle of May, Buttigieg has settled nationally into the top tier of candidates with 5.8% support, according to the averaging of polls by Real Clear Politics.
That put him in fifth place behind Biden (35%), Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (16.5%), Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (9%) and California Sen. Kamala Harris (7.5%).
Buttigieg has moved up even higher in the few recent polls of likely New Hampshire voters over the past six weeks.
He’s in third place (10.5%) behind Biden (28%) and Sanders (15%), edging out Warren (8%) and Harris (6.5%) for that spot.
The winners of the last primary didn’t do many small town hall or retail events.
The prevailing wisdom has been for the “top tier” candidates to shy away from face-to-face interactions with voters, for fear of a gaffe captured on a smartphone that would bring them down in the polls. And after 2016, analysts like Spiliotes were left wondering if retail politics was losing its relevance.
“I don’t think we had written off retail politics, but there was this question mark,” Spiliotes said.
He credits Lis Smith, Buttigieg’s national communications adviser — who previously worked as director of rapid response in President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign — for applying her technical sophistication and political savvy in helping to raise Buttigieg’s name from relative obscurity.
Smith declined to compare how their campaign schedule differs from other candidates in the race, but said their strategy is different.
Smith said she was one of Spiliotes’ students at Dartmouth College, and said she cut her teeth in Democratic politics in New Hampshire by knocking on doors for Jeanne Shaheen in 2002 and by serving as a field organizer for John Edwards in Keene in 2008.
Smith says she knows New Hampshire voters well; she describes them as “discerning,” “steely” and “independent.”
The model for Buttigieg’s strategy in New Hampshire, which she said mirrors their national strategy, takes a cue from McCain’s upset in 2000.
“That’s why New Hampshire is a very intriguing place for us, because New Hampshire has always rewarded unconventional candidates,” Smith said.
She said she has even sought out and spoken with the architects of McCain’s campaign, and she said they are even discussing getting a bus, like McCain’s so-called Straight Talk Express.
“Not because Pete is the reincarnation of John McCain. They differed on pretty much every major political issue. But John McCain showed how you win New Hampshire as an underdog,” she said.