Presidential contender Pete Buttigieg is set to take the stage at a Fox News Town Hall with Chris Wallace in Des Moines, Iowa, at 7:00 p.m. ET Sunday, with just days to go until the do-or-die, first-in-the-nation caucuses are held there on Feb. 3.
It will be the Democrat’s second appearance at a Fox News Town Hall, after he took on President Trump and pitched a series of tax hikes at a New Hampshire event last May. The stakes are higher this time around, as Buttigieg’s rising poll numbers in Iowa — and warning signs in future primary states — have created both high expectations and little room for error.
“I’m not sure a win is necessary, but he’s got to be in the top two, I would think, to have any chance of moving on,” said Joe Trippi, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign manager.
“He has to beat Biden in Iowa to keep this going in a serious way,” remarked David Axelrod, an architect of President Obama’s 2008 victory. “The predicate of his race has always been he’s a younger, more contemporary, sturdier alternative to [Joe] Biden in the center-left lane. If Biden does better than him, it kind of destroys the predicate.”
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The hyperpartisan nature of the electorate has created its own challenge. In an email to supporters this week, Lis Smith, Buttigieg’s senior communications advisor, offered a lengthy explanation as to why the 38-year-old former South Bend, Ind., mayor was appearing on Fox News. Other candidates, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have shunned the network, and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) barred Fox News from hosting one of its presidential primary debates.
“We can’t play it safe. We can’t afford to write off voters,” Smith’s email read. “Pete broke through with his CNN town hall last March, and even had Donald Trump attacking him after his Fox News town hall dominated the national conversation.”
Pete Buttigieg speaking at the University of Dubuque in Dubuque, Iowa, this past Wednesday. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
This weekend, fellow presidential candidate Andrew Yang backed up that approach in Iowa. “One thing I think Democrats should do, I think we should go on Fox News and talk to the American people,” Yang said. “How can you win an election and bring the country together if you literally won’t talk to 40 or 50 percent of the population?”
Yang added: “This is something I’d say that is critical of the DNC. There was a decision early on in the process where Fox News said, ‘We’d like to host a DNC debate.’ And, to me, if you’re the DNC, you jump at that. You’re like, ‘Let me show my candidates to people who generally watch Fox News.’ But, the DNC turned it down! I was like, ‘What are you doing?’”
Iowa has posed unique opportunities, and possible pitfalls, for Buttigieg’s campaign. A New York Times/Siena College survey showed Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., ahead of Buttigieg by eight points and Biden by nine points — a narrow gap at second-place that afforded Buttigieg an opportunity to make a splash. Sanders has pulled far ahead in New Hampshire, as well, though, potentially signaling that progressives wanted more radical change than Buttigieg has promised.
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Additionally, Sanders and Warren could take disappointing Iowa finishes to New Hampshire, where they’ve had regional followings, and try, in effect, to cancel out the first contest quickly. Sanders and Warren also had more online donors — Warren less so — who could sustain them through any setbacks.
Buttigieg has polled very low among African American voters, who are expected to make up roughly two-thirds of the electorate in the South Carolina primary.
However, Buttigieg is also doing fairly well in New Hampshire, and campaign aides said a top finish in Iowa could slingshot Buttigieg and would lead to a competitive New Hampshire.
While the half dozen strategists who have advised top-tier Democrats in Iowa said Buttigieg didn’t have to win, several said finishing behind Biden would be trouble.
“If Buttigieg can beat Biden, and [Amy] Klobuchar, it sets him up to be a real alternative to Sanders and Warren,” the two most progressive candidates in the top tier, said Jennifer Psaki, an Obama campaign alum who served in the White House and State Department. “That’s key for him moving forward.”
Fox News’ Paul Steinhauser in Des Moines, Iowa, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.