Editor’s Note: This story is part of a series covering the Utah-centric Super Tuesday strategies of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.
SALT LAKE CITY — Pete Buttigieg laid out his hopes and strategy for a Utah victory on Super Tuesday with an in-person town hall meeting in Salt Lake City on Presidents Day.
The town hall was, according to Buttigieg’s campaign, part of over 100 Utah canvasses, kickoffs and events it has hosted with over 2,000 local volunteers. The campaign announced it was placing two paid staffers in the Beehive State ahead of the March 3 primary and had placed boots on the ground in every Super Tuesday state.
The event followed a string of prestigious local endorsements, including those from Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, and a surprise onstage endorsement from current Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall. While endorsements do not always translate to campaign success, as evidenced by the few endorsements President Donald Trump received during his 2016 campaign, they can provide legitimacy between candidates and the local party and predict outcomes when polls err.
Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is pitching a message focused on disenfranchised Republicans, moderates, independents and undecided voters.
An unexpectedly strong finish in the Iowa caucus established Buttigieg as the possible moderate frontrunner. He grabbed the highest number of votes from counties that trended blue for Obama but red for Trump, placing him as a frontrunner in the swing-vote category.
Buttigieg’s moderate messaging may have a unique opportunity to take hold in traditionally red Utah, where Trump garnered the lowest Republican support in the nation in 2016 and Sen. Mitt Romney has become a staple of anti-Trump right-wing opinion. However, the Buttigieg campaign will have to peel support away from other moderates appealing to the same sentiments and splitting the vote, like Amy Klobuchar and Joe Biden.
Buttigieg’s presidential pitch on Monday maintained its focus on red-blooded Americans left behind by the president’s polarization as he began with the rallying statement, “This is what it looks like to prove that there is no such thing as a permanently red state.”
He also invited “future former Republicans” to join him and endorsed Romney’s lone impeachment vote, saying the Utah senator “was more concerned with his relationship with his conscience and his Maker” than his party. He called on faith as a method to defeat the evangelical-supported current president, rehashing his popular campaign slogan, “God does not belong to any political party.”
Buttigieg also invoked traditionally red militarism as he spoke in front of a giant American flag at the Union Event Center and frequently discussed his service in the U.S. Navy in Afghanistan after introductions from local veterans. He called out Trump for dodging the draft during the Vietnam War.
Beyond sentiments of faith and hope aimed at swing-voters and Republicans, Buttigieg’s rhetoric centered around undecided Democrats and moderates.
Throughout his speech, Buttigieg welcomed undecided voters and reiterated the importance of winning every vote cast for him. During the questioning period of the event, the former mayor defended his less-ambitious climate plan than his fellow nominee, Bernie Sanders, claiming that electability was the first step to real change and outlining the strengths of his proposal.
Additionally, Buttigieg focused on the importance of diversity and immigration, citing his own experience as a member of the LGBT community as an important part of his journey toward the presidency.
Attendees of the town hall ranged across the political spectrum.
Han Johnson, vice president of the campus group Weber State University Students for Pete and a young liberal emerging from a family of tea party Republicans, said that she began volunteering for Buttigieg’s campaign after seeing his advocacy of youth homelessness.
“I am a formerly homeless youth, and he’s the only candidate — he and Chasten, are the only people to address youth homelessness that I’ve seen,” she said. “It brought me to tears knowing that youth like me were being represented in a higher-level campaign.”
Becky Pickle, a fiscally conservative and socially moderate voter undecided about her 2020 ballot, was drawn to the town hall due to her disenfranchisement with Trump and curiosity surrounding Buttigieg.
She said, “I like Pete so far because I feel like he’s pretty well-balanced. I feel like he has some good ideas, and also I really like that Pete is willing to learn and admit when he makes mistakes. We need to be more willing to bridge gaps and not cancel each other out so much.”
Carrie Butler, an unaffiliated moderate who leans left, explained that she attended Buttigieg’s town hall as her “first foray” into the 2020 election.
Even Republicans like Ezra Pugliano attended, saying that he felt “sometimes Trump is too far right-wing and Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are way too far left-wing, and so Pete seems like a very good moderate.” He continued, saying Buttigieg was, “someone who, that as a registered Republican, I would feel comfortable voting Democratic for.”
On the subject of Utah support for Buttigieg, Pugliano said, “It’s crazy how many people in Utah are showing up for him, and I think it really shows that Utahns are ready for a presidential candidate that is a moderate.”
Pugliano cited Buttigieg’s stance and empathy on LGBTQ issues, and immigration plans which balanced security and humanity as deciding factors in his vote, claiming, “Pete is the only Democrat I would vote for; otherwise, I’m voting for Donald Trump.”
Currently, Buttigieg is forecast to win 11% of the Utah vote and 2 of the state’s 29 pledged delegates. Bernie Sanders won the 2016 Utah Primary Caucus and is currently leading local 2020 polls with an expectation of 30% of the vote and a two-thirds chance of winning the majority of Utah delegates.
Buttigieg is pitching a path to victory in the Utah Democratic primary that relies on a compilation of recent endorsements from local politicians, a bump from his in-person appearance and recent national surge in polls, and a unification of moderates on the left and right.