Shari Flatt, a 71-year-old retired schoolteacher living in Dubuque, told me that she’s interested in Warren, but still has doubts on whether the senator’s ambitious slate of policy proposals is actually feasible. “That keeps me looking at the moderates, like Pete,” Flatt said. Plus, she added, in a race against Trump, Buttigieg “can hold his own, there’s no doubt about that.”
The Sanders supporters I spoke with were hardly impressed with Buttigieg’s reputation, telling me they don’t believe he is a viable option for voters looking for a “political revolution,” as the senator from Vermont has promised to wage as president. “The heart of the Sanders campaign is that, because the problems are big in America, the solutions have to be big,” said Tom Carsner, the 61-year-old co-chair of the Johnson County, Iowa, chapter of Our Revolution, an organization spun out of Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign. “I don’t see that from Pete.”
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Asked to describe Buttigieg, Sanders backers used words like “disingenuous” and “elite” and “Republican.” They seem to dislike him more than they do other candidates—even the most prominent moderate in the race, Biden. It’s not simply that Buttigieg hasn’t advocated for ambitious policies like Medicare for All; it’s that they see him as a shape-shifting opportunist who used to sound more progressive when he first jumped into the race. Buttigieg’s stump speeches once featured relatively radical proposals for overhauling the Supreme Court and abolishing the Electoral College. But as he has begun to more directly position himself as an alternative to Biden, he’s talked less about those proposals and has taken more direct jabs at the progressivism of Warren and Sanders.
“Nobody was surprised by Biden being a conservative, neoliberal jackass,” says Caroline Schoonover, a Sanders supporter and the co-chair of the Central Iowa Democratic Socialists of America. For someone who appears to share broadly the same ideology as Biden “but brands themselves as ‘new’ like Pete, it’s kind of more gross.”
Grindle, who works at a grocery chain in North Liberty and runs a Facebook page called Caucus for Bernie 2020, referred to Buttigieg as “socially liberal but basically a conservative.” He and the other Sanders supporters I interviewed pointed to Buttigieg’s numerous donations from Silicon Valley executives and his participation in high-dollar fundraisers, the kind that Sanders and Warren have sworn off. (Buttigieg went to Harvard with the Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who reportedly has recommended campaign hires to him.) “That’s not a grassroots movement,” Grindle said. “That’s not a people-powered surge.”
That so many Democratic voters have been impressed by Buttigieg and his imposing résumé—Harvard, Oxford, McKinsey—demonstrates that the party’s priorities are all screwed up, some Sanders supporters told me. It “reinforces what I perceive as America’s obsession with a Kennedy president,” said Ash Bruxvoort, a Sanders supporter who runs an LGBTQ-friendly bed and breakfast in Mount Vernon, Iowa. Bruxvoort would much rather see Democrats elect a president who has “consistently talked about issues affecting working people and really comes to the table with experience, like, actually doing organizing work.”