DES MOINES, Iowa — Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg claimed a measure of victory in Iowa late Monday, telling supporters at his caucus watch party that the state had “shocked the nation.”
The Iowa Democratic Party has not released complete precinct results, saying it is working to validate numbers after finding “inconsistencies” in reporting. But that didn’t stop several campaigns from claiming they performed well on caucus night.
“What a night,” the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor said from his watch party at Drake University in Des Moines. “Because tonight, an improbable hope became an undeniable reality.”
Buttigieg tried to project victory to his supporters. Before he took the stage, his campaign staff tweeted partial precinct results — none official — to showcase strength.
“So we don’t know all the results,” Buttigieg told the crowd. “But, we know, by the time it’s all said and done, Iowa, you have shocked the nation.”
A Buttigieg win or top finish in Iowa would be historic, marking the furthest an openly gay candidate has come to securing a party’s presidential nomination.
Buttigieg’s potential strength in rural areas
In the final weeks before the Iowa caucuses, Buttigieg visited rural areas of the state that could prove beneficial to his overall performance in Iowa once results are released.
He made several stops in less-populated Iowa counties. If he was successful in reaching caucus viability in rural precincts where other candidates failed, it could give help him rack up the delegate total that determines a winner.
Buttigieg visited several so-called “pivot” counties that supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 before backing Donald Trump in 2016.
“It’s partly because we’re building this politics that’s about belonging. It’s about addition, not subtraction,” Buttigieg told the Des Moines Register in an interview Monday afternoon. “So that means reaching out beyond the kind of the traditional places you’d be expected to go.”
During his campaigning in Iowa, Buttigieg had tried to argue that he can bring in not only Democrats but independents and what he calls “future former Republicans.” He said that’s important in rural areas and industrial small towns where Trump had strength in 2016.
“Since so many voters are really just concerned about ensuring we can win in November, demonstrating strength in areas where you can only succeed by drawing in independents and some Republicans is a great way to prove it,” Buttigieg told the Register.
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In the final days of his Iowa campaign, Buttigieg tried to highlight how he believes his background as a former mayor from the Midwest, whose faith and military experience have shaped his life, best position him to defeat Trump.
For his only public event on Caucus Day, Buttigieg stopped by his West Des Moines field office to meet with volunteers. He hugged them and took selfies in a room where images of his face were plastered on the walls. A baby grabbed Buttigieg’s nose and a dog named Franklin Delano Roosevelt roamed around.
“Happy Caucus Day!” Buttigieg told his supporters, who chanted his name at times.
Frank Webb showed up at a precinct in downtown Des Moines to caucus for Buttigieg. The 56-year-old, who had just moved back to Iowa from Ohio, said it was his first caucus.
“When he speaks and answers questions, he doesn’t hem and haw,” he said. “He gives a fresh face to what I’d like to see in a president.”
Carla Harrington, a 60-year-old who was also downtown to caucus for Buttigieg, was convinced he could win Iowa.
“I think he can go all the way,” she said.
Buttigieg had expected to get a clear picture Monday night of whether his improbable bid for the presidency has a shot. Instead, he left the state after his speech to New Hampshire, the first state to hold a primary on Feb. 11.
“With hope in our hearts and fire in our bellies, we’re going on to New Hampshire, on to the nomination, and on to charter a new course for this country that we love.”
Buttigieg’s investment in Iowa
Buttigieg has invested heavily in his ground game in Iowa, with more than 30 offices and about 170 staff members as of mid-January.
His campaign focused on relational outreach, encouraging volunteers to talk to their family and friends to make personal connections with Iowans being inundated with contacts by multiple campaigns.
It culminated in November, when Buttigieg led the Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll for the first time, with 25% support. He then dropped 9 percentage points in the Iowa Poll released in early January.
Buttigieg’s rise in Iowa also brought greater scrutiny, with his competitors questioning whether the former mayor has the experience to be president.
But Buttigieg had begun to relish the discussion. In the final days before the caucuses, he had also sharpened criticisms of some of his Democratic rivals as he tries to set himself apart from the crowded field.
“When people ask me, ‘What makes you think a mayor from a city that’s not even one of the biggest cities in the country … ought to be running for the White House?’ My answer is, ‘That’s exactly the point,'” he told Iowans at a stop in January in Mason City. “We’ve got to begin bringing our message from the American people into Washington.”
Other Democratic candidates also criticized Buttigieg’s high-dollar fundraisers. Buttigieg has defended them, noting he had little name recognition at the start of his campaign and has small personal wealth compared with others seeking the nomination.
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He also has pointed out that Trump is raising large amounts of money for the general election.
Another challenge for Buttigieg is concern about his ability to draw support from voters of color. He polls low nationally with black voters, a key bloc within the Democratic Party. He’s not the only Democratic candidate facing that problem, but he receives the most attention.
Buttigieg says he’s still introducing himself to black voters. He has adopted policy positions aimed at addressing systemic racism in America and often incorporates discussions about racial inequality into his stump speeches in Iowa and other states.
Historic nature of Buttigieg’s candidacy
Buttigieg has reminded Iowans in recent days how a 2008 caucus victory helped propel the relatively unknown Obama to the presidency, a parallel that Buttigieg has leaned into for months.
The 38-year-old would become the first openly gay president, as well as the youngest, if elected.
“So, are you ready to make history one more time?” he asked a crowd in Des Moines on Sunday at his final rally before the caucuses.
At his caucus watch party on Monday night, Buttigieg called his husband, Chasten, the “future first gentleman of the United States.”
As his campaign here drew to a close, Buttigieg repeatedly faced questions by reporters about whether he needs to do well in Iowa to continue in the other early voting states.
Asked if that narrative was fair, Buttigieg told the Register before the caucuses: “I think it’s certainly true that we need a good performance here. It’s important for us to demonstrate that we have the ability to turn folks out. To make that closing argument. Not just to have an appealing message, but an operation that can succeed.”
Buttigieg added: “We’ll know tonight what a good finish feels like.”
Follow Barbara Rodriguez on Twitter: @bcrodriguez.