In many ways 38-year-old Pete Buttigieg has more on the line in the Iowa caucuses than any of the other front-runners in the race.
Buttigieg, who is still a relative newcomer to the national spotlight, is banking on a win or a top finish to buoy his campaign and show the rest of country he can win.
In front of crowds he is confident. “I believe we will win the Iowa caucuses,” the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, enthusiastically declared on stage in Cedar Rapids this past week. But off stage the former mayor has been increasingly realistic with reporters as his campaign enters the final 10 days of what will be the biggest test of his candidacy.
Asked by ABC News in Newton, Iowa, if there’s a path forward for his campaign if he fails to do that, Buttigieg maintained that “it’s certainly very important for us to do well.”
“It is the first opportunity for us to show versus tell that we can earn voter support, that we can build that success that we're then going to continue to need to do in further primaries towards the nomination and on in general. So, very important to do well here.”
A few days later in Mount Pleasant he added, “We will continue working with an underdog mentality … We've got to do well here in Iowa because it's our first opportunity to actually demonstrate versus saying that we're able to win an election.”
Buttigieg has built an impressive ground operation in the Hawkeye state. His team has over 100 organizers and more than 30 field offices, including 14 in the crucial counties that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and helped re-elect him as president 2012, but then surprisingly flipped for Donald Trump in 2016. These areas, in Southeast Iowa, have been a major target for 2020 Democratic candidates and Buttigieg’s campaign says they feel very good about their work in these counties.
Outside Iowa, his footprint is smaller. Buttigieg has been performing well in New Hampshire and consistently turns out large crowds at his events, but has less than half the offices there than he does in Iowa and just over 75 staff on the ground.
In Nevada, which votes third in the Democratic primary, he’s boosted his staff to more than 65 and has 12 offices across the state. And in South Carolina, an area where he has little support from African American voters, the mayor has 50 full-time staffers and seven offices, according to the campaign.
Recent Fox News polls out of the last two early states show Buttigieg in single digits, but as he’s laid out in Iowa, he’s counting on voters to remain undecided, hoping they take note of how the race plays out.
“I think there are a lot of voters here who will be looking for that show of strength and Iowa is of course the first opportunity on the calendar to demonstrate that, so it becomes more important than ever,” he said in Nevada this month.
Latest polling out of Iowa shows a dip in support for Buttigieg. A Monmouth University poll released on Jan. 13 shows him down 5 points, at 17% support, behind Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden at the top. Another CNN/DMR/Mediacom poll released two days late showed a 9-point decline for him, with Sanders at the top of the field.
Buttigieg has been leaning in to his rustbelt background and Washington outsider status in this final stretch, setting him apart from his other top competitors who’ve made a name for themselves on Capitol Hill.
“I respect everybody who is competing to be the nominee and to be the president, but I just come at this from a different place. My perspective is formed from a different personal experience,” Buttigieg told a caucus-goer in Burlington after being asked what he brings to the table that his fellow candidates do not.
For voters like Stephanie Shepard, 40, from Des Moines, that sensibility is as appealing as his background as a military veteran.
"He just has what it takes to unify us," she said.
He is also embracing comparisons of himself to then-Sen. Barack Obama when he first ran for president in 2008. Buttigieg is inviting Iowans to take a chance on him, the way they chose to embrace another unknown political newcomer.
“Twelve years ago Iowa changed America's understanding of what it looked like to have a viable presidential candidate who was viewed as improbable from the outset," he said. "A young man with a funny name from over the border in Illinois, and you put him on the path to the presidency.”
As Buttigieg campaigns throughout Iowa in these final days, he says he won’t be changing up his message from what it's been over the past year.
“The message won't change because my values haven't changed, but you will see us continuing to build toward a closing argument that really brings home why I’m the best nominee to defeat Donald Trump and would be the best president for the moment that comes next,” he said.