The Two Things That Sank Buttigieg’s Candidacy

The changes in the primaries that made it harder for the former South Bend mayor to succeed also constitute progress for his party.

Pete Buttigieg
Pete Marovich / The New York Tim​es / Redux

Figuring out why Pete Buttigieg dropped out of the presidential race yesterday is easy. He had gotten trounced in South Carolina, appeared likely to get trounced on Super Tuesday, and, according to FiveThirtyEight, had a less than 1 percent chance of winning a plurality of pledged delegates overall.

The more interesting question is how Buttigieg—who dazzled the national media, captivated big donors, and came close to winning the first two primary contests—found himself in this unenviable spot. The answer says a lot about how the Democratic Party’s relationship to money and expectations surrounding race have changed over the past 30 years.

Although Buttigieg’s youth, sexual orientation, and lack of statewide elected experience made him an unconventional candidate, he raised money in a conventional way. He raced across the country holding fundraisers with large Democratic donors, many of whom embraced his campaign after his stellar televised performances in the spring. What he achieved playing by the Democratic Party’s old fundraising rules was remarkable. Over the course of 2019, Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, outraised Joe Biden, the former vice president, by $15 million.

Once upon a time, that might have been enough. From 1984 to 1992, every Democratic contender who secured the most support from his party’s big donors went on to win the nomination. By the end of 1983, it was clear that Walter Mondale—assisted by his New York State finance chairman, Robert Rubin of Goldman Sachs—would raise far more than his Democratic opponents. Four years later, Michael Dukakis—who “obtained much of his [campaign] money from investment bankers, contractors and lawyers”—“vastly exceeded his rivals in fund-raising.” In 1992, Bill Clinton “greatly surpassed his rivals in attracting money.”

Buttigieg’s problem was that this old pattern no longer holds. Since 2004, when Howard Dean harnessed grassroots anger at Democratic complicity in the Iraq War to outraise his establishment rivals, populist Democrats have rewritten the fundraising rules. Over the course of 2019, Buttigieg raised about as much money as Bernie Sanders from donors who gave more than $200, but less than half as much from donors giving less than $200. As a result, Sanders didn’t merely outraise Buttigieg by more than $30 million; he and Elizabeth Warren turned Buttigieg’s big-donor support into a political cudgel.

To make matters worse, Buttigieg suffered from another campaign-finance innovation: the rise of the self-funding billionaire. The $76 million he raised in 2019 wasn’t only $32 million less than Sanders’s haul. It was $124 million less than Michael Bloomberg and $130 million less than Tom Steyer spent from their own wallets. (The discrepancy grew even starker in the first two months of this year.)

Squeezed on both ends, from populists raising large sums from small donors and from plutocrats writing themselves mammoth checks, Buttigieg’s big-donor strategy—which propelled Mondale, Dukakis, and Clinton to their party’s nomination—left him without enough cash to effectively compete in the 14 states that vote tomorrow.

The other shift that doomed Buttigieg’s campaign involves race. It is now conventional wisdom that Democratic candidates cannot—and should not—win their party’s nomination without demonstrating significant African American support and a genuine commitment to racial justice. But that wasn’t always the case. Dukakis won the Democratic nomination in 1988 despite having “largely ceded the black vote to [Jesse] Jackson for most of the primary season.” Coming from Arkansas, Clinton in 1992 enjoyed stronger personal ties to African Americans than Dukakis had. But he also pandered to white racists—flying back to Arkansas days before the Iowa caucus to approve the execution of a mentally disabled African American man—in ways that would be almost unthinkable in a Democratic primary today. As late as 2004, John Kerry struggled to connect with black voters. “There’s no doubt that John Kerry has not captured the hearts of African Americans the way Clinton did,” explained a Senate candidate in Illinois named Barack Obama in 2004. But Kerry won the Democratic nomination nonetheless.

Since then, the Democratic Party’s expectations surrounding race—like its expectations surrounding money—have dramatically changed, at Buttigieg’s expense. Trace the arc of his campaign, and it’s clear that, at two key junctures, his struggles with black voters blunted his momentum.

The first occurred over the summer. From March to May of last year, Buttigieg ascended from less than 1 percent to 8 percent in national polls. Then, in June, he left the campaign trail to respond to a police shooting of an African American man in South Bend. Footage of African American protesters angrily confronting the mayor went viral. “You’re running for president, and you want black people to vote for you?” one protester announced. “That’s not going to happen.”

Asked at a Democratic debate a few days later why South Bend’s police force remained overwhelmingly white, Buttigieg admitted, “Because I couldn’t get it done.” His rise in the polls soon stalled. By August, The New York Times was observing that “criticism of Mr. Buttigieg’s oversight of the police has damaged his viability as a Democratic presidential candidate.”

The mayor tried to repair the damage. In July, he announced an ambitious racial-justice agenda, which he called “The Douglass Plan.” And starting in October, as Warren lost support, he began another climb. By November, journalists were writing about “the Buttigieg moment.”

Then more racial problems hit. The Intercept reported that African American leaders who the Buttigieg campaign claimed had endorsed the Douglass Plan actually had not. The mother and child in the photo accompanying the plan on the campaign’s website turned out to be from Kenya. Buttigieg was forced to apologize for a 2011 video in which he said that many kids in “lower-income minority neighborhoods” don’t “know [anyone] personally who testifies to the value of education.” When Buttigieg suggested, during a November debate, that being gay helps him understand the discrimination African Americans face, Kamala Harris called him “naive.” When a campaign memo suggested that homophobia was one reason for Buttigieg’s failure to attract more black support, African American columnists called it a racist smear. His polling numbers began dipping once again, and by December, The Washington Post was noting that Buttigieg’s “struggles to connect with black voters have become one of the dominant narratives of his campaign.”

By the time Iowa and New Hampshire voted, the story line about Buttigieg’s lack of black support was so ingrained that it led some to affix an asterisk to his strong performance in those overwhelmingly white states. Buttigieg’s inability to disprove that story line in Nevada (where African Americans constituted 11 percent of Democratic voters) and South Carolina (where they constituted a majority) doomed his campaign.

It’s harder to imagine that scenario playing out in the 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s. It’s not just that fewer African American journalists and activists were shaping coverage of the Democratic campaign back then. Until 2008, South Carolina didn’t even stand alone as the fourth contest in the primary calendar. As late as 2004, the race progressed from Iowa and New Hampshire to a multistate primary that included the Palmetto State but also Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Oklahoma—a sequence that would have made it easier for a candidate with minimal black support, such as Buttigieg, to do well.

The increased prominence of black voters—and small donors—may have hurt Pete Buttigieg. But both shifts constitute progress. The fact that white candidates cannot easily brush off African American concerns doesn’t mean that white candidates can’t win. It doesn’t even mean that they can’t overcome past transgressions. In South Carolina, Biden did both. What it does mean is that Democratic candidates who want to win black voters must start earlier—and work harder—than in the past. Sometimes, as in the case of Sanders, that requires running twice. It’s a thought that Buttigieg, in all likelihood, has already had.