WEST SACRAMENTO — When the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, first announced his desire to become president, he was met with widespread confusion across California. Few people knew who Pete Buttigieg was, let alone why they should vote for him.
Months later, he has surged in the polls and is now neck-and-neck for fourth place in the state with California’s hometown Sen. Kamala Harris. Speaking to a crowd of 2,500 people in West Sacramento on Sunday — his largest grassroots fundraiser to date — Buttigieg vowed to ramp up his campaign’s efforts.
“I’m pretty sure California is going to be a big part of the story of how I came to be your nominee and your president,” he boasted at the event.
Buttigieg, who has all but camped out in the state thus far into his presidential bid, announced the new hiring of a state director earlier this month. As early voting for California’s March 3, 2020 primary nears, Buttigieg plans to launch an all out blitz to win over voters.
“California has been extremely receptive to our message, and now we need to back that up with a ground game,” he said on The Sacramento Bee’s California Nation podcast after the event. “It’s different organizing a state as big as California than it is a state like Iowa. But we think it’s going to be important because we sense that California is wide open.”
Of immediate concern to his campaign is a lack of support among black voters. A recent poll conducted by UC Berkeley showed only one in four black California residents were considering voting for him. Of the 103, black respondents, just one said they’d vote for Buttigieg — a number smaller than competitors like spiritual leader Marianne Williamson and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Buttigieg also faces a tough road ahead, as enthusiasm in California has grown exponentially for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Many attendees were convinced Buttigieg was their candidate of choice, but several others saw him as one of several options they’re considering.
“I don’t think we’re anywhere close to a final decision, but I’m very excited that he’s in the mix,” said Robin Riley, a Sacramento resident who is also considering Warren.
“I’m still not sold on his health care plan,” added Kate Holding, a Sacramento attorney undecided between Warren and Buttigieg. “I think there are a lot of things that make sense about Medicare-for-all. He could just do a better explaining to his potential supporters how he won’t let the health care industry take advantage of individual people.”
Inherent in Buttigieg’s remarks throughout his speech and in his interview was a tension between appealing to California’s most liberal voters while distancing himself from progressive policies other candidates have put forward.
He told The Bee he wants to address health care by offering Medicare as an option to anyone who wants it.
“It allows American people to choose what is right for them,” Buttigieg said. “I think most Americans will want that Medicare-for-All who want it that I propose we create. Precisely because I think it will be the best plan, I’m not going to command Americans to leave private insurance and take up my plan.”
He also shied away from proposals California lawmakers have passed this year, including limiting gun purchases to one a month, paying college athletes and limiting annual rent increases to 5 percent plus inflation.
“I don’t think that Washington should dictate what the right thing is for different states, but it certainly seems like a promising way to keep housing from becoming even more (un)affordable,” he said on the idea of imposing rent control.
Asked whether Trump should be removed from office right away, he pivoted to his existing stance of supporting an impeachment inquiry. “I certainly think he’s done things that are worthy of removal. I doubt the Senate will make that happen.
While his ideas may not be a perfect match for some of California’s most liberal voters, Sunday’s event could give him an extra boost.
“I think he has a really good chance in the middle of the country and maybe not as much in the coasts, but this turnout makes me think otherwise, so we’ll see,” Holding said.
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