What is it about the 37-year-old mayor of a small, Midwestern city that has voters across the country coming together to volunteer for him? That was the question I wanted to answer as I set out to New Hampshire to follow the 'Barnstormers for Pete,' a grassroots volunteer effort in support of Pete Buttigieg.
For Kat Sosnick, a New York City native, politics was really just about pulling the lever on Election Day. That was, until Buttigieg entered the race, pushing her to co-lead one of the largest grassroots organizations I have seen in this election cycle (the Yang Gang being another ). It started with Facebook, Sosnick explained, and by November, supporters had used social media to mobilize.
"This folksy little thing we hatched back in August of 2019 happened right before the [Liberty and Justice] dinner in Iowa. That was our first road trip. We got 1,000 people from all 50 states in Iowa," Sosnick explained.
"The last time I have been this involved in politics was probably 40 or 50 years ago. I was on Senator Robert Kennedy's team," Vikki O'Hara from Council Bluffs, Iowa said. O'Hara lost her enthusiasm for politics after the death of Senator Kennedy and his brother, President John F. Kennedy, in the '60s.
Sosnick echoed a similar message about her loss of faith in the political process.
While venturing to Iowa by myself for the Liberty and Justice Dinner — the final gathering of Democratic candidates prior to the caucus in February — I flew from New York City to Des Moines on a plane filled with supporters dressed in blue and yellow in support of Buttigieg as he surges in polls and reeled in more and more donations.
Buttigieg's rise can be traced to voters using the internet to build support for a candidate. Sosnick calls the Barnstormers a "digital-grassroots" campaign built on social media infrastructure that has connected thousands of Buttigieg fans across various social media platforms.
Last weekend's New Hampshire trip was the second for this volunteer effort. Nearly 50 supporters canvassed, and the 200 in attendance represented 22 states — all self-financed and without official recognition from the campaign.
O'Hara has been surprised to meet so many Barnstormers on the campaign trail. "You came from where? On your own dime? To support Mayor Pete?" she said with a laugh.
Since declaring his candidacy for the 2020 presidential race, Buttigieg has gone from a relative unknown on the national stage to a top-tier contender. In recent polling out of the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, Buttigieg is leading.
Ariana Wyndham, a Dreamer, made the second trip to New Hampshire for the Barnstormers after getting in with the group in Iowa. She teared up when discussing her affinity for Buttigieg.
"I've never been into politics, never been involved in anything at all really, I have three kids, I mainly just stay at home. This is out of my comfort zone," Wyndham said.
On the trail, Buttigieg has faced some tough questions about his experience handling race-related issues, and a recent Quinnipiac poll showed him with almost no support from black voters in the early voting state of South Carolina.
But for Wydham, who is Latina, this only means Buttigieg need to focus on increasing his name recognition within these communities. "I'll mention that he speaks Spanish," she said.
"Being a DACA recipient brings it into perspective for some people because they don't realize the process behind it," she said. "If I tell them about Pete, they say, yeah I need to support him for you."
On Monday, Buttigieg released his pledge for a "new era" for Latinos in the United States, called "El Pueblo Unido." The plan would create a path to citizenship for nearly 11 million undocumented people living in the U.S., which includes DACA recipients like Wyndham. It also provides Dreamers better access to higher education.
Holiday joy— Barnstormers For Pete- Headed to Reno (@PeteBarnstormer) December 14, 2019
Manchester Barnstorming! Woop woop! pic.twitter.com/RJ0F31x7Ko
Back on the trail, the group's excitement can be infectious. They put the viral "High Hopes" dance on the map. They're a more diverse group than you might except just reading Twitter all day. They love talking about Pete — it's as if they know him personally, and they hope that passion for the candidate will sway some of the still-undecided voters of New Hampshire.
After the Barnstormers enjoyed some social events on Saturday morning, Cheddar was given access to their canvassing effort throughout Manchester — the process of walking door-to-door to speak with voters, with the hope of receiving a signature in support of the candidate.
Volunteers carry with them a card that lays out the "rules of the road," borrowed from the official Pete for America campaign, which is all about respect while spreading the gospel about the candidate. The "rules" include joy, belonging, boldness, and teamwork.
The volunteers I followed on a cold and damp day included Marsha Finkelstein and friend Ariel Garcia. Although Finkelstein is something of an expert in canvassing, this was all new to Garcia. "I've never been active, I've never canvassed," he said. The veteran and the amateur tag teamed as they worked toward one common goal: spreading the word about Buttigieg.
"Pete is genuine, his responses are genuine," Garcia added. "I wasn't kind-of with Pete. I was with Pete all the way."
The pair got three voters to sign their pledge for Pete. They explained this was a much more successful outing than their first.
While Finkelstein and Garcia canvassed, I got the chance to speak with one of the voters with whom they spoke. She said his plan for "Medicare-For-All-Who-Want-It" is a big reason she is supporting him.
When asked about Buttigieg's age (37 — just two years older than the minimum age to become president and half the age of some of his contenders), and the comparisons with his moderate but much older rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, she told me: "I tend to vote for who I like, and not who I think can win in the general because that's going to shake itself out when the New Hampshire primary is all over."
"So far, that's been Mayor Pete," she added.