Emulating McCain’s Straight Talk Express, Buttigieg Gives Reporters Complete Access During Iowa Bus Tour

In an effort to ramp up outreach to voters, presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg provided reporters with unencumbered access during a recent bus tour of eastern Iowa.

The tour, which covered nine cities over four days, allowed reporters to ask Buttigieg questions on a variety of topics—including the state of his campaign and the whistleblower complaint that has engulfed Washington. Buttigieg also took the opportunity to air his grievances with the “moderate” label that is often ascribed to him, and discuss his views of figures such as philosopher John Rawls and abolitionist John Brown.

Buttigieg also opened the bus conversation to the public by having a Q&A on his Twitter account.

Currently in fourth place, Buttigieg is trailing front-runner Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders. Designed by communications advisor Lis Smith, the bus tour is a component of Buttigieg’s broader outreach strategy of flooding the media.

According to Politico columnist Jack Shafer, media exposure was, in part, what propelled Buttigieg from obscurity to the forefront of the 2020 race. In April, just a few months into his campaign, Smith explained her strategy: “I want him on everything.”

Smith first utilized the tactic of bombarding the media during Buttigieg’s unsuccessful bid to be chair of the Democratic National Committee in 2017. Looking back at the race in an interview in April, Smith admitted the media blitz was unorthodox.

“What we did is f**king ridiculous,” Smith said. “I don’t know if that delegate from Oklahoma is going to be reading the Elle.com profile, but a lot of people are, and they should get to know Pete Buttigieg. That was my philosophy. Let’s just blow it out. It might not get you the votes, but I am not the political director. I am here to get you clips. I figured he was special and it couldn’t hurt if everybody knows who he is.”

While traveling across the country with him in 2017, Smith made a point of acquainting  Buttigieg with journalists. By her estimates, Buttigieg had 150 personal meetings with local political reporters.

Buttigieg’s recent tour of Iowa was inspired by the Straight Talk Express, Senator John McCain’s bus tour during the 2000 presidential election which became a model for giving journalists unprecedented access to candidates. One of McCain’s advisors, Ken Khachigian, said of the bus tour, “I’ve complained he has no time to strategize and think. He’s got reporters sitting there all the time asking anything they want to. He’s totally exposed.” 

Smith is cognizant of how the strategy of media blitzing can lead to more gaffes. She said, “You have to know the social media ecosystem, how people are sharing and consuming their news. It’s why in one day we do CBS Sunday Morning, The View, Teen Vogue and The New Yorker. It’s about hustling for opportunities. Pete has no battle scars.”

David Axelrod, former chief strategist to President Barack Obama’s campaigns, told Politico, “McCain was ruthlessly honest, and that’s why it worked. He was not one who minced words or chose them carefully.” He added, “Not that Pete is not forthright, but he chooses his words carefully.” 

Walter Shapiro, a staff writer at The New Republic who has covered eleven presidential campaigns, was the only journalist to be on both McCain’s Straight Talk Express and Buttigieg’s bus tour. He wrote, “I can testify that the South Bend mayor lived up to that laudable tradition for openness as he cheerfully answered questions, large and small, from a press contingent that topped out at 15 reporters.”

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