Before the first Democratic presidential debates kicked off last week, close to 100 Pete Buttigieg supporters and donors sheltered from the Miami heat in a Hilton hotel conference room, where Buttigieg’s senior staff briefed them on the campaign’s transformation from shoe-string operation to $25 million enterprise.
The officials didn’t reveal Buttigieg’s field-leading second-quarter fundraising total then, but what they did discuss is more important in the long run: how Buttigieg plans to spend the money.
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For months, the South Bend, Ind., mayor has run one of the more frugal 2020 campaigns, eschewing on-the-ground organizers in early caucus and primary states and instead focusing on fundraising, media appearances and the candidate’s travel. But Buttigieg is now rapidly expanding his campaign’s footprint to try and build on his gains in the first half of the year.
In Iowa, Buttigieg’s campaign added 30 organizers at the end of June, filling out what had previously been a four-person skeleton crew. A dozen staffers are now on board in New Hampshire. And by the end of the summer, there will be many more: The campaign plans to swell its staff to 300 people by Labor Day, according to multiple people briefed on its plans.
“As we go into the summer toward the fall, we really need to make sure we’ve got the right kind of ground game. And part of that is how we use my time, and part of that is in between [events] making sure we’ve got folks day in and day out on the ground,” Buttigieg said during a recent campaign stop in Sioux City, Iowa. “So you’ll see the numbers of organizers and volunteers that we have really growing.”
“The whole point of all that fundraising is making sure we have the organization we need to win,” Buttigieg continued. “Obviously, we’ve got great news on that front. Now we’ve got to get to work.”
Buttigieg’s rapid staff build-up is still happening more slowly than it did for many of his presidential rivals. Some, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, built sturdy (and expensive) ground operations in early state months ago, investing heavily in field staff and other employees.
“His huge fundraising number shows his ability to sustain himself in this race, which not every candidate can say, and second, it gives him the resources to build an organization, which he hasn’t done so far,” said David Axelrod, the Democratic strategist who led former President Barack Obama’s campaigns. “It’s imperative that he do that.”
“This quarter keeps him in the top-tier, but he has to convert that money into actual activity. That’s been his challenge from the beginning, how to scale up,” Axelrod continued.
Buttigieg’s top staff explained that process to supporters in Miami last week, including campaign manager Mike Schmuhl, top fundraiser Swati Mylavarapu and national political director Stephen Brokaw all spoke. Buttigieg and his husband Chasten stopped by as well.
The effort to build up early-state staff follows concerns by some that the campaign did not do enough to bottle the momentum from Buttigieg’s viral moments early in the campaign, which vaulted him into the top five in primary polls.
“They started late, but they’ve rapidly [been] catching up,” said Grant Woodard, a veteran Iowa Democratic operative. “I think they’ve definitely sensed that they were behind.”
When former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign announced that he raised $21.5 million from April through June, it meant Buttigieg would almost certainly be the top fundraiser in the Democratic primary for the second quarter, cementing an enviable position for the upstart mayor within the field of candidates. But locking in his polling gains from earlier this year won’t be easy. As Buttigieg builds up his campaign, is also facing the first serious test of the presidential campaign at the same time, over how he handles the shooting of an African American South Bend resident by a white police officer.
During the first Democratic presidential debate, Buttigieg was asked why the city’s police department hasn’t become more diverse during his time as mayor.
“Because I couldn’t get it done,” Buttigieg replied during the debate. He went on to say: “I am determined to bring about a day when a white person driving a vehicle and a black person driving a vehicle when they see a police officer approaching feels the exact same thing.”
In a speech Tuesday, Buttigieg continued to sound notes on his commitment to tackling racial inequality, calling it a “matter of national survival” to a crowd of African American business leaders in Chicago.
Buttigieg was forced to cancel a series of fundraisers in California to address the shooting. But his presidential campaign continued to grow even as he was pulled off the trail.
“We’ve done amazing things with 15 to 20 people,” said one Buttigieg donor. “Now, we’re starting to ramp up, and we have to ramp up. What you’re seeing now is more of a focus on how the strategy gets built out.”
In addition the new field staff, Buttigieg’s campaign has grown a large policy shop, including a foreign policy team with more than 100 volunteer experts and a speechwriting team. Zev Karlin-Neumann, a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama, is now on board.
But “the landscape is littered with candidates who raised a bunch of money early on but were not able to translate that into popular support,” said former Indiana Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh, citing Texas Republican Phil Gramm as an example. Bayh added that he doesn’t think Buttigieg will meet the same fate.
“The question is: Can he take these resources and drive a message that will expand his popular support, particularly in key states?” Bayh said.