DECORAH, Iowa – Deb Tekippe spent much of this year convinced she would support Joe Biden in his 2020 bid for president, but the more she has seen of him on the stump and in debates on TV, the less confident she has become.
So, on a recent evening she found herself crammed up against the bleachers in Decorah's high school gym to see South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. She came away intrigued. "I was all in for Joe Biden, but now I'm wondering what happened with him, you know? It's obvious that he's fading," said Tekippe, 63, a retired nurse who now says she won't caucus for Biden and is strongly considering Buttigieg. "Pete is on his way up. There is a lot of enthusiasm for him, and there are so many people who really want to believe in their candidate, and you have to see him in person to see how impressive he is."
Tekippe's experience reflects the new reality in Iowa: Buttigieg has emerged as the major alternative to Biden among moderate voters the former vice president has counted on as the bedrock of his campaign in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.
A Quinnipiac University poll released last week found Buttigieg in second place in Iowa, a single percentage point behind Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and ahead of Sen. Bernie Sanders in third and Biden in fourth. That followed a recent New York Times/Siena College poll had Buttigieg with slightly more support than Biden in the state.
The Midwestern mayor not only has caught Biden in the polls, but his campaign is also better funded, has drawn larger and louder crowds at events, and has shown signs of a more effective ground operation in a state where the former vice president is making his third bid for the White House. The question remains whether Buttigieg can turn that momentum into permanent support ahead of the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3.
His advantages were on full display recently as the top 13 candidates in the field flocked to Des Moines for the state Democratic Party's annual fall fundraising dinner.
There, Buttigieg's supporters made up about one-quarter of the crowd, giving their candidate the loudest applause of the night. Biden had the smallest group of supporters among the major candidates — with the exception of Sanders, who drew around 1,000 people to a rally outside but didn't buy tickets for supporters inside.
The enthusiasm gap between Biden and Buttigieg was even more evident in the hours before the main event.
More than 2,300 people stood in a steady rain for a Buttigieg rally in a downtown plaza where the candidate gave a speech and thanked the "Barnstormers for Pete," a group of die-hard supporters that travels the country to boost the mayor's candidacy.
"Well, friends, this is what it feels like when you realize you are definitely going to be the next president of the United States!" Buttigieg said to a loud roar. "This is what it feels like to build a movement. This is what it feels like to insist on change."
So far, both campaigns have more than 20 offices and in excess of 100 paid staffers in the state, but Schaitberger predicts that Biden's ground game will turn out loyal Iowans likely to attend caucuses while implying Buttigieg's newfound support is more fickle.
With less than three months until the caucuses, the state of play in Iowa remains fluid. The Times/Siena poll found 65% of Iowa voters who picked a top candidate still could be convinced to caucus for someone else.
Both the Quinnipiac poll and the Times/Siena poll concluded the race is a wide-open, four-candidate contest — with the front-running quartet in a statistical dead heat. Both had Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar collecting around 5%.