Pete Buttigieg has built a stout operation in Nevada.
He has twelve offices across the state — including in rural Fallon and Pahrump — and 55 organizers and operatives on the ground here. The former mayor has also been on air in the state since December and notched nine total trips to the Silver State, including to the Las Vegas area on Saturday.
But there is a question hanging over all of these efforts: Will any of it matter?
Buttigieg, arguably more than any other candidate in the top tier, needs a strong finish in either Iowa or New Hampshire to propel him past the first two states. While his team has poured millions into Nevada, that spending is dwarfed by what the campaign has built and spent in the first two states — especially Iowa, where the candidate is slated to spend much of the rest of the month.
And that is all part of the plan for the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
“The idea is this: If Iowa becomes the breeze, the organizing program in Nevada and elsewhere is building a sail — which can’t be built overnight — that is ready to catch the support,” said a source close to the Buttigieg campaign.
The calculation is that a win or strong finish in Iowa or New Hampshire will be followed by millions in earned media and — possibly — even more in donations. The same happened for then-Sen. Barack Obama after he won the Iowa caucuses in 2008.
“I think that a lot of voters here are going to be looking for that show of strength,” Buttigieg said on Saturday. “And Iowa is of course the first opportunity on the calendar to demonstrate that, so it becomes more important than ever.”
When asked whether he thinks he could win in Nevada without doing well in Iowa, Buttigieg punted. “I will let analysts make their judgment on that,” he said.
Buttigieg’s team is spending heavily to position the candidate well in Iowa and New Hampshire and hoping that momentum from those two contests replenish what could be spent campaign coffers ahead of Nevada’s February 22 caucus.
“Any campaign would be grateful for the energy and momentum that would come out of wins in Iowa and New Hampshire,” said Jess O’Connell, a senior adviser to the Buttigieg campaign. “But this is an unprecedented campaign with an unprecedented number of competitors. I think what we have seen is anything can happen, and our goal is to be ready.”
So far, Buttigieg has not seen appreciable growth in Nevada.
Polls over the last few months have shown Buttigieg in the mid-single digits, including a Fox News poll released earlier this month that found Buttigieg at 6% in Nevada, far behind former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and billionaire Tom Steyer, who has blanketed the state in ads as most candidates focus on Iowa and New Hampshire.
Buttigieg’s campaign hopes that a win in either of the first two states peels supporters away from Biden, Warren and Sanders and forces some undecided voters to coalesce around the former mayor. There is also a sense that Steyer’s numbers are inflated due to outsized ad spending and will come down after the first two contests.
But polls from Iowa and New Hampshire show a tight race in both — meaning a win, or even a second-place finish, is far from a forgone conclusion for Buttigieg. A newly released CNN/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll found the former mayor at 16%, down nine points since the poll was last taken in November. A Monmouth University poll out earlier this month found Buttigieg at 20% in New Hampshire, nearly even with Biden at 19% and Sanders at 18%.
So the direness of the next month, and the impact it will have on races in Nevada, South Carolina and elsewhere, has been clear in emails Buttigieg has sent to supporters.
“By now you’ve heard about the latest primary polls from this week,” Buttigieg’s campaign wrote. “It’s a dead heat in both Iowa and New Hampshire — two states where we have to do well in order to continue this campaign.”
Most voters at Buttigieg events in Nevada on Saturday said the results from Iowa and New Hampshire would impact who they caucus for in Nevada.
“It will clarify a lot for me these next couple of weeks,” said Tony Del Corto, a 59-year-old retiree. “I think once Nevada comes through, we will make our decision.”
Michael Pennington, a 71-year-old retiree who came to the event with Del Corto, agreed.
“After I see the whole picture coming together, it will help me make a final decision,” said Pennington, who has yet to fully decide on Buttigieg.
There were some Nevadans who dismissed results from Iowa and New Hampshire as playing no factor in their decision.
“Ultimately I think I need to make my decision based on who I support the most,” said Madison Elmer, a 22-year-old student. “It’s going to have some say in my decision, but not a lot.”
But most Nevadans agreed with Kathryn and Kaitlyn Hawkins, 21-year-old twins who were born in Iowa but now live in Nevada.
“It will definitely be impactful. I love Pete, I think he is amazing, but that will impact how I see things,” said Kathryn Hawkins, who said she could see herself “throwing her support to another contender if I think there is no hope for someone else.”
“I think we have to consider that this election,” said Kaitlyn Hawkins. “We need to keep in mind who is doing well and who is well liked.”
Political experts in Nevada, like longtime reporter and analyst Jon Ralston, said voters like those show that Buttigieg’s strategy makes sense in a state that — while independent — will take some cues from the earlier contests.
“I have always believed that Mayor Pete’s strategy here was to build a formidable infrastructure to capitalize on any momentum from Iowa and New Hampshire. And he has done so,” said Ralston. “His meager standing in the polls here masks his commitment on the ground to use (Nevada) as a springboard. But he needs Biden to falter before Nevada votes or this probably is moot.”