Why Pete Buttigieg’s moment could last well past the debate

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Otterbein University on Tuesday. His campaign is uniquely poised to keep his momentum going well beyond the debate.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Otterbein University on Tuesday. His campaign is uniquely poised to keep his momentum going well beyond the debate.Win McNamee/Getty Images

By most accounts, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., had a great debate Tuesday night. So did Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

But unlike Klobuchar and virtually all other Democratic presidential candidates, Buttigieg has built out a campaign infrastructure that could, in theory, help him sustain momentum from his highly praised performance.

Buttigieg has a large campaign presence in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire so he could quickly translate his star turn into something more tangible and lasting.

In raw terms, this means that Buttigieg has the money, the staff, the data, and the endorsements to rapidly expand his reach.


He had $23.4 million in the bank at the end of last month, more than twice what Biden did. He has hundreds of people on staff.

The 37-year-old’s campaign offices have lists of potential supporters to reach out to, and can ask them to show up and make calls to other voters.

Klobuchar, by way of comparison, doesn’t have any of this. It means whatever momentum she has could be fleeting.

Bolstered by his success in fund-raising in the first half of the year, Buttigieg spent the summer building out a campaign infrastructure.

In New Hampshire, for example, Buttigieg has 13 offices, more than any other campaign. (Senator Elizabeth Warren is in second with 10 offices.) In those Buttigieg offices, there are 64 staff members, with 57 of them slotted for direct voter contact, according to the campaign. A few campaigns have more staff on the ground in the state, but they tend to be in roles that are not in direct contact with voters.

Buttigieg also has the highest number of offices in Iowa, 22, again slightly edging out Warren, according to a recent New York Times analysis. Buttigieg’s campaign says it has more than 100 staffers on the ground there. It has also been running television ads in the Hawkeye State for a month.


There is a reason why all of this matters.

History has shown that while it is easy for candidates to have “a moment,” it is very hard for them to sustain the moment. In 2008 and 2012, Republicans Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum may have won the Iowa Caucuses, but they didn’t have anything to help them in the following states to keep it going. This is where the spade work in the early primary states can help the most.

Just consider Senator Kamala Harris of California. She was riding high after her June debate performance. Polls quickly found her to be a top-tier candidate.

But Harris spent considerably less time in Iowa and New Hampshire than other major candidates and made building out her infrastructure, staff, and endorsements less of a priority. Within a month, she was fading.

As it stands, there are 19 Democratic presidential candidates running for president. On the ground in the early states, just a few candidates have built an infrastructure able to capitalize on any momentum. And among that group, no candidate is better built as a “growth stock” than Buttigieg, who has sat just outside of the top tier of candidates, including Warren, former vice president Joe Biden, and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Tuesday’s debate marks the second burst of momentum for Buttigieg. In March, he came out of obscurity during a CNN town hall in Texas where he attacked Vice President Mike Pence’s views on homosexuality. Following that performance, Buttigieg was a hot ticket on the campaign trail, but his staff didn’t yet have the capacity to grab personal data from the crowds swarming his events.


This time around, it’s different. Buttigieg needs to find a way to get into the top tier and improve his standing among female voters and people of color. It’s unclear if Team Buttigieg can pull that off. But they are uniquely set up to give it a shot.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@jamespindellor subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp