The 2020 presidential election is still a year away. For whichever candidates go all the way, that’s more than a thousand meals, mostly eaten on the road while glad-handing and selfie-taking with voters around the country. From downing corn dogs for the cameras to eating the lumberjack special at a famed local diner, each public meal is an opportunity to connect with voters under the (ludicrous) pretense of being just another regular person — or a vote-erasing disaster, like John Kerry’s Swiss-cheese-smothered Philly cheesesteak in 2004. For most candidates, every single bite in front of a camera is a tight-rope walk over a pool of molten nacho cheese.
But then there’s South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, whose gastronomical exploits, from the Iowa State Fair to the iconic Grimaldi’s Pizzeria, where he shamed former candidate and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s dainty slice-eating manners, are already the stuff of electioneering legend. So it’s no surprise that when I asked multiple campaigns for permission to tail a candidate and document everything that went into their body for two straight days, the Buttigieg camp was by far the most receptive, allowing me full access — often, I was the only photographer in the room — while the candidate embarked on a bus tour across rural Iowa battleground counties that went for Obama in 2008 and 2012, but flipped to Trump in 2016.
The tour started in Cedar Rapids, at a fish fry fundraiser for Abby Finkenauer, a freshman congresswoman from Iowa’s First District. Every top-tier candidate made an appearance: Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Buttigieg, who recently overtook Biden and Sanders in the latest Quinnipiac poll. The fundraiser was not a traditional food photo op like the Iowa State Fair or the Polk County Steak Fry, so the candidates largely hid out in the green room, though Cory Booker’s partner, the actress Rosario Dawson, did wander out at one point to collect some fried Alaska walleye. Buttigieg’s slot was late in the afternoon, and the team had already eaten Jimmy John’s, the college town sandwich chain of choice, for lunch, so he missed the actual fry — but with the next stop two hours away, there was no time for fish anyway, just a cup of black coffee as the bus took off.
Next up was a rally in Decorah, a town in Winneshiek County. The town has a population of just 7,700, but more than a thousand people showed up to see Buttigieg, who is going all-in on Iowa. With a start time of 7 p.m., there was no set plan for a dinner stop. “Food is always a surprise on these trips,” said Sean Manning, Buttigieg’s deputy Iowa press director. “Where it comes from, when it comes.”
Between the stump speech, Q&A session, and handshakes, Buttigieg spent an hour with the crowd, then returned to the bus and drank a Founders All Day IPA while answering questions from the press. While there were off-brand White Claws, red wine, and a bottle of Bulleit bourbon available, Buttigieg stuck to IPAs — like his politics, a beer style that is progressive but ultimately safe — over the two days I trailed him.
Visiting a restaurant with a presidential candidate usually involves more hand-shaking than eating, so essential meals are often consumed out of sight from voters, which presents logistical difficulties. Most meals are ordered and picked up while the candidate is still on stage, so it’s ready to eat on the vehicle by the time the event is over. In Iowa, the task of choosing where and what to eat falls to Buttgieg’s Iowa press director Ben Halle, who went to school at the University of Iowa; state director Brendan McPhillips; and the advance team, which scouts locations and arranges logistics so things are already in place by the time the candidate arrives — Seamless, but for everything. The team often surveys local volunteer coordinators for recommendations, but Jimmy John’s and Dairy Queen frequently win out — restaurant chains are, at the very least, a known commodity.
Word from their volunteers on the ground was that the food from Toppling Goliath Brewing Company, which specializes in IPAs and barrel-aged stouts, is the best in Decorah, so the advance team ordered trays of tacos, chips, fries, and pizza to take back to the hotel. Buttigieg sampled from various trays before opting to wash down the chicken tacos with a Lagunitas IPA while chatting off the record with press and staff.
Buttigieg often begins his stump speech by asking voters to imagine the sun rising on the day that Donald Trump is no longer president of the United States. But the next morning, the sun rose on Buttigieg doing an intense workout before heading out to the bus to shoot campaign video. Of course, the advance team made sure that breakfast was waiting.
Buttigieg took a few bites from a box filled with hotel bacon and eggs before spying a tray of cinnamon rolls and maple pecan sticky buns from Ruby’s Restaurant. Ever the millennial, Buttigieg shot a photo of the fully loaded tray with his cell phone and tweeted it before microwaving one of the frosted buns and chasing it with a cup of black coffee. The bus took off for the first stop of the day, 67 miles away in Waverly.
The event in Waverly was at a local school gymnasium, packed with 568 people. Like in Decorah, Buttigieg spent an hour there, which gave the advance team time to get three platters of sandwiches from Sub City, a sandwich shop located in an old train depot that came highly recommended by Buttigieg’s local volunteers.
There’s a sort of romantic notion that driving through the American heartland and visiting every diner along the way is the best way to see, and taste, what this country is really made of. Riding with a presidential candidate, this could not be further from the truth: The goal is to touch as many voters as possible, and a small town’s sole diner is not an ideal space to corral hundreds of people, much less grab a quick burger. Eating mostly happens while the bus wheels are in motion.
“Eating on a vehicle is good for portion control,” said Buttigieg, noting that there isn’t a big table where “things can spread out.” For lunch, Buttigieg took an Italian sub from one of the Sub City trays and loaded it up with lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles — so many pickles.
“My team is pretty good about keeping me well fed,” Buttigieg said as he drank a can of Diet Coke with his sandwich. He added a bottle of water and coffee to the mix as the bus rolled toward Charles City, about 30 miles away.
Energy was running low at this point: It was late in the afternoon, the room at the Charles City Elks Lodge was small and dark, and it had started to pour outside. The advance team took note of this and made a run to Dairy Queen to pick up Blizzards for Buttigieg, the staff, and the entire press corps. Two dozen Blizzards — in vanilla, chocolate, M&M’s, and Reese’s flavors — were waiting on the bus by the time the event ended.
Buttigieg wrapped up after an hour and looked wiped as he boarded the bus, but perked up as he settled down with a Reese’s Blizzard and conversations with the press corps turned toward football. The caravan sped toward the last stop of the day, 30 miles away in Mason City.
Mason City was the largest of the stops, and the gym at Lincoln Intermediate School filled up accordingly. The city is also home to Northwestern Steakhouse, which is sometimes considered the most iconic steakhouse in the state. There is, however, little campaigning advantage to visiting a nearly empty 65-seat restaurant in the late evening and having dinner there, so the advance team opted for more takeout.
Large platters of fried rice, pad thai, egg rolls, and fried dumplings from Thai Bistro and Sushi Bar were ready on the bus when the event ended. “The sushi would’ve been a bit too risky,” said Lis Smith, Buttigieg’s fiery communications advisor whose New York-style media blitz approach has elevated a near-anonymous mayor of a midwest town to the top tier of the Democratic primary. Though her critique of landlocked state sushi is a bit outdated, she seemed pleased to get some Thai food into the mix, mentioning that whoever ordered some underwhelming subs earlier in the trip “fucked up.”
Buttigieg sampled a fried dumpling before settling on a plate of chicken pad thai, an egg roll, and a Pompeii IPA from Toppling Goliath Brewing Company.
Another day of campaigning for president down, 361 days of road food to go.