The plan is to transmogrify the ins that he’s built up with the insiders and turn them into enough recognition to get himself a moment in the sun.
He doesn’t have much time.
The first two Democratic debates are in June and July, each a mix of front-runners and long shots. Even the strongest candidates right now view those as moments likely to help define the race, and they’ll all be looking for breakout moments. As Buttigieg himself acknowledges, he’ll likely have to get to the stage with some momentum and profile already behind him so that he’s spending his allotted minutes doing more than correcting the pronunciation of his last name and explaining where South Bend is.
“I’m not like the others. And that’s going to be really important. The other thing is, ‘How much depth is there to your account of how America works, how politics works, and where the world is going in our lifetime?’ ” he said. “Mine will have to be an account of how the country and the world works, which makes more sense than what the others are saying.”
Being the toast of the Democratic circuit over the past year has meant that Buttigieg hasn’t been spending a lot of time in South Bend. He’s about to spend even less time there, though his term goes all the way through the end of the year. He’ll be traveling to Iowa, New Hampshire, and all the other states presidential candidates rush through, with appearances in Washington, D.C., and meetings with donors in New York, California, and beyond.
That’s exactly the kind of far-from-home itinerary that people in Los Angeles and New York have griped about when thinking about their own mayor going national and maybe running for president. Buttigieg says no matter where he is, the people of South Bend will get “a full-service mayor,” and that in this, being a small-city mayor is an advantage. But he also argues that he’ll help the city by being a walking commercial for South Bend’s growth, and by bringing more reporters and supporters in to see him and what he’s done there. He’s a particular fan of Dyngus Day, the Polish holiday celebrated the Monday after Easter by people spending the day stuffing themselves full of sausages and beer.
“South Bend, in many ways, is our message,” he said.
He’s also privately talked up the possibility of tapping into a network of gay donors and supporters, in the way Howard Dean did for the 2004 campaign because of his support for civil unions, which at the time put him far out ahead on LGBTQ rights. One of the people Buttigieg has laid that plan out to argued that with gay marriage legal, the energy may have dissipated, historic as his candidacy is.
When I floated that response to Buttigieg, he tensed up. Whoever said that must be from a big city, he figured. (He was right.)
“In one sense, obviously that’s correct, but also you can still get fired in Indiana for being gay. There’s no rule against that. Not in South Bend, we have an ordinance about this, but in other parts of Indiana it’s all the time. We had a kid beaten to death for being gay in South Bend last year. So it’s not like the fight’s over,” Buttigieg said. “Some people may not find this interesting anymore.” For others, it “may really mean a lot to them to—especially the older generation, who, you know, spent most of their lives at a time when it was inconceivable you could be out and in office anywhere. They’re just so thrilled to live to see this.”