CONCORD, N.H. — There are a lot of reasons why voters might think former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg is unelectable as president: He’s barely old enough (just 38), has never held state or national office, he’s gay, and his support among Black voters in polls is virtually zero.
But now he’s got one big reason to argue he is electable: his strong showing in the Iowa caucuses.
“More than anything, I think it’s going to make it possible for us to get a second look from a lot of voters who have always said, ‘Yeah I like your ideas, but we need to make sure we win,’” Buttigieg said in an interview with the Globe on Wednesday.
“To show, not just tell, that we are building the organization that can draw different kinds of people into the tent to defeat Donald Trump in November, I think it really changes everything,” he said in his crowded Concord field office after speaking at a forum about climate change.
On Monday night in Iowa, Buttigieg took the bold step of declaring victory even before any official results were released amid widespread caucus reporting problems. But with him narrowly leading Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders with 96 percent of the results as of Wednesday, it now appears he was correct — or close enough — and he said he wants to use that momentum for another strong finish in New Hampshire.
Political analysts believe Buttigieg is positioned to do well in Tuesday’s primary. His support jumped 8 percentage points since Monday to 19 percent in the Boston Globe/WBZ-TV/Suffolk University tracking poll of likely Democratic primary voters. That vaulted him into second place in Wednesday’s poll, behind Sanders at 25 percent.
“Pete Buttigieg is the candidate that’s going to surprise people next week,” predicted Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. “There’s something in the way he is communicating and it’s been working.”
For months, his staff here has been striving to develop a strong ground game that will now try to capitalize on his Iowa success. Much like in Iowa, they have not ignored more conservative parts of the state and towns such as Claremont, which Trump carried in 2016 after being won by then-President Obama four years earlier.
“We looked right at it and said no, we are going to organize here ... we are going to work for these votes,” said Victoria Williams, the Buttigieg campaign’s state director. Political analysts here said Buttigieg has one of the strongest operations in the state, with 15 field offices in all 10 counties and 75 paid staff.
In Iowa, Buttigieg was successful with a message that welcomed what he calls “future former Republicans” — even Trump voters — into the fold. “We are defined not by who we voted for in the past but by what we are voting for in the future,” he said in his speech Monday night in Des Moines.
In large part, he plans to use the same message in New Hampshire. Buttigieg said a mayor is a symbol of unity for a community and that should translate into the presidency.
“It’s also, from a practical perspective, really important if we want to win people over, not to start the conversation by pointing a finger in their face and telling them they’re bad,” he said. “That’s the whole idea, that in order to win, but also in order to govern, we’ve got to bring people out of the silos that they’ve been packed into by this partisan moment.”
But Iowa is much different than New Hampshire.
Unlike in Iowa, voters here cannot change party affiliations on primary day, so it is unlikely many Republicans will vote for him on Tuesday. However, about roughly 40 percent of New Hampshire voters are unenrolled, meaning they can choose which primary to vote in.
Buttigieg is hoping to win those voters. And he said his effort to cast himself as a unifier could help convince Democrats that he is electable in the general election.
“I know that sometimes I’m appealing to people who may not agree with me on everything, but we can agree we need a different president, and we can agree on the big things that need to change in this country,” Buttigieg said.
The first one of those big things that he mentions in his campaign speech to voters is climate change. On Wednesday, he spoke about his plan to curb its effects at a youth forum in Concord, casting it as a bipartisan issue.
“If everybody is vulnerable to climate harms, everybody can participate in the solution,” he said. “And that’s the corner I think we have to turn in order to actually get anything done. This is too big, too important, too existential to be another partisan tug of war.”
Levesque said that his strong showing in Iowa will do much to convince people that his youth and inexperience are not important. Whether he can win over enough of the largely Black Democratic electorate in South Carolina to do well in its primary on Feb. 29 is another question.
Another thing Buttigieg has going for him right now is Biden’s lackluster performance in Iowa, which has wounded the campaign of the other leading moderate in the race and has prompted his would-be supporters to consider alternatives.
“If you’re able to win, people take you seriously,” said Andrew Smith, a political scientist and pollster at University of New Hampshire.
Targeting likely Democrats in this state can be difficult because the population is much more transient than Iowa, and also because the majority of voters are not affiliated with a party.
For that reason, the campaign said, it has used a technique called “relational organizing,” where volunteers start by contacting people they know to try and win them over, then ask those people to tell others, rather than relying on possibly outdated voter rolls. “Friend-banking” is what they call it when people use phone banks but call people they know.
After flying overnight from Iowa, Buttigieg hit the ground running on Tuesday, with seven events across New Hampshire that drew a total of nearly 1,700 people, according to the campaign.
After the climate change forum on Wednesday, Buttigieg left for New York and New Jersey, where he planed to fund-raise and appear on “The View” and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” before returning to New Hampshire on Thursday afternoon for an event with veterans in Merrimack.
The campaign raised $24.7 million in the fourth quarter last year from individual contributions and has raised $76.2 million during the whole cycle, according to the Federal Election Commission.
His campaign has been criticized for spending too much time focused on ritzy fund-raisers. But on Wednesday, Buttigieg defended his money-raising in the midst of a crucial week in New Hampshire, saying he will still spend the majority of his time here.
“Ultimately, it’s up to the folks who are here, even as I’m having a conversation with the entire country,” he said.