Iowa City reacts to first debate after Pete Buttigieg’s rise in Iowa Poll

Following Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg’s spike in the most recent Iowa Poll, Buttigieg received less scrutiny during the November Democratic debate than Iowa City voters expected.


Katie Goodale

Attendees watch during a Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, watch party of the Democratic debates in Schaffer on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. (Katie Goodale/The Daily Iowan)

Caleb McCullough, Politics Reporter

After rising to the top of Iowa polls, Pete Buttigieg fielded some attacks from other presidential hopefuls at the fifth Democratic debates, but not as much as his Iowa City supporters were expecting.

University of Iowa freshman Theo Prineas said before the debates began he was expecting Buttigieg to be the target of other candidates during the debate. However, he said he expected Buttigieg to be able to handle the pressure.

“I think he’s going to be the center of a lot of attention,” Prineas said. “I won’t deny that I’m a little nervous, but I have a lot of faith and I think he’s a fantastic candidate.”

He was among 60 people gathered to watch the debate at Sanctuary Pub in Iowa City with the Buttigieg campaign.

Buttigieg led the field of Democratic presidential hopefuls in Iowa, with 25 percent of those surveyed saying the South Bend, Indiana, mayor was their top pick for president in the November Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll.

He jumped 16 percentage points to overtake Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who narrowly led the Iowa Poll in September. In November, Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders sat in a pack behind Buttigieg, polling at about 15 percent.

Buttigieg was the target of some scrutiny throughout the debate. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota, went after Buttigieg’s experience, claiming that a woman with the same credentials as Buttigieg wouldn’t have clinched a spot on the debate stage.

Sen. Kamala Harris, California, questioned his ability to gain support from minority voters, pointing to a recent controversy around a stock photo of a Kenyan woman that was included on his website in connection with his Frederick Douglass plan, a plan to address issues facing black Americans.

Buttigieg received wide criticism on Twitter for the stock photo and a list of 400 African American leaders in South Carolina who, the campaign claimed, supported his Douglass plan. The list did not clearly separate who formally endorsed the plan and those who simply liked the plan.

Still, some supporters at the watch party said there was less focus on Buttigieg than they expected in light of his recent surge in Iowa. Yardley Whaylen, a senior at City High who plans to caucus for Buttigieg, said other candidates were overshadowing a focus on Buttigieg.

“There’s been a lot of like Biden, Bernie, and Kamala, but I haven’t seen a lot of discussion around Pete,” she said.

By the end of the debate, Buttigieg had accrued 12 minutes and 56 second of speaking time, the second-highest under Warren.

Nearly 30 UI students attended a Hawkeyes for Warren watch party at Schaeffer Hall. Warren is behind Buttigieg in the Iowa Poll, and in most national polls Warren is locked with Biden and Sanders.

UI student Claire Player plans to caucus for Warren in February and said she wasn’t surprised to see Buttigieg’s spike in the polls. She said with Buttigieg being white, moderate, and Midwestern, he appeals to Iowa’s voter demographic.

Player said she thought it was interesting that lower-polling candidates such as Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and billionaireTom Steyer got a lot of talking time during the debate.

“I feel like I would have liked [higher polling candidates] to interact because in the last debate, most of the debate was taken up by them going on about health care, and now that [Warren] has an official plan out I’d love to have them actually talk about it, because [Buttigieg] used to say that she didn’t have a plan, but she obviously did,” Player said.

A few blocks away at a 30-person debate watch party hosted by UI Students for Biden, president of the organization Jordan Miller said he was not concerned by Biden’s number in Iowa polls.

“Iowa is an important first step for a lot of people, but it’s not the end of the road if you don’t win it,” Miller said. “I don’t know where Joe Biden will end up — but I’ll fight like hell to make sure he does end up winning come February.”

Biden polled at 15 percent in the Des Moines Register poll, in a three-way statistical tie for second place with Warren and Sanders.

The event, on the top floor of the Airliner  drew mostly students with some community members joining in as well over plates of free pizza.

Some attendees were not ready to commit to caucusing for Biden, and others were interested in other candidates.

Stewart Longswroth, a UI alum who graduated in 2017, attended the Biden watch party with friends, though he said he plans to support Buttigieg.

Longsworth said Buttigieg’s pivot to more moderate policies closer to Biden’s could be a draw for the mayor.

“I think [Buttigieg] has pivoted to the center and that’s why people find him compelling. He’s got a younger, more well spoken-front than Biden,” Longsworth said.

Still so many candidates

“I just think it’s kind of a circus,” said UI sophomore Ella Heckman, who watched the debates with two of her friends at a Nextgen-hosted event at Brother’s Bar and Grill.

Wednesday’s debate was moderated by MSNBC and the Washington Post and featured 10 candidates — fewer than the 12 candidates who took the stage in September. 

She thinks there are too many candidates — she couldn’t have identified Steyer or Gabbard, until watching the debates on Wednesday.  She plans to support Warren in February.

UI sophomore Karter Donahue attended the watch party. He said he plans to caucus in February, though he isn’t committed to a candidate yet.

Donahue said he is interested in Buttigieg as a potential candidate, although he finds the current number of candidates in the field overwhelming.

“It’s daunting, especially with this being the first election I’ve really been involved in. Seeing so many candidates, it’s hard to see which ones are legitimate contenders and which platforms I actually support,” Donahue said.

Rylee Wilson, Julia Shanahan, and Sarah Watson contributed to this story.

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