CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Pete Buttigieg ran through his stump speech (six minutes on generational change), tossed bean bags with activists (in front of as many cameras as Iowa voters), took seven questions from reporters (“How does it feel to be a rock star?”) and pounded out some blues on an electric keyboard (a Miles Davis tune).
If Mr. Buttigieg didn’t spend much time talking to voters at his campaign picnic on Sunday, he did stick to his winning formula: doing everything possible to reach bigger audiences on their screens.
More than most of his Democratic rivals, Mr. Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., has cracked the code of the early months of the presidential campaign, embracing TV appearances while mastering the art of creating moments for social media and cable news. The 37-year-old’s campaign was the first to grasp that the early primary race would unfold on mobile devices and televisions instead of at the traditional town-hall gatherings and living rooms in the early states.
He’s not alone: Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has inundated reporters with policy proposals, prompting hours of cable news coverage and forcing fellow candidates to respond to her ideas during live interviews.
Unlike many of their rivals, who built their political careers in the era of carefully chosen, less-is-more press interaction, the two have placed their fate in the hands of TV bookers and the gods of online viral content.
Erik Smith, a Democratic strategist who worked on Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, said none of the candidates or their staff members have experience running in such a crowded primary contest, which puts a premium on the need to be nimble and creative. “They’re used to having a two-way primary and a two-way general,” he said. “Those habits don’t serve you well in a multicandidate primary, particularly one as long and substantive as this.”
Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Warren began their rise in the public polling as they became more frequent presences on cable TV. Since April 1, the most-mentioned Democratic presidential candidates on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC are Mr. Biden, Mr. Sanders, Ms. Warren and Mr. Buttigieg, according to data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive.
Mr. Buttigieg, who rose to 14 percent support from 1 percent in three months in polling conducted for The Des Moines Register and CNN, has been powered largely by his appearances on televised town hall-style programs, which have helped him create a fund-raising colossus rivaled only by Mr. Biden’s when it comes to tapping major donors, said Rufus Gifford, the finance chairman for Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign.
“It’s about having ideas,” Ms. Warren said. “About being able to say specifically, ‘Here’s what’s gone wrong in this country, how corruption has put us on the wrong path,’ and then having very specific plans to go after it.”
In April and May, Ms. Warren and Mr. Buttigieg outspent most of the Democratic field in advertisements on Facebook and Google. Ms. Warren spent $1.1 million and Mr. Buttigieg $975,700, according to tracking from Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic political firm. Only Mr. Biden, who spent $1.5 million after his late-April campaign launch, and Ms. Harris, whose campaign spent $1 million, are close.
“More power to them,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. “People will peak at different moments. I’d rather peak closer to the election.”
Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, who was the penultimate candidate to join the race, said he did not draw any inspiration from the tactics of President Trump’s campaign.
“I don’t take from 2016 that this is the era of celebrity,” Mr. Bullock said after polishing off a steak dinner. Referring to a former Republican presidential candidate who did well in some polls in 2015, he added, “You could have said to me four years ago, ‘What do you attribute the strength of Ben Carson to?’”