Pete Buttigieg Isn’t Just Winning Over People on the Internet
“We belong in this conversation,” says the South Bend mayor, insisting that he’s not a 2020 long shot anymore.
CONCORD, N.H.—Getting nonstop press is different from getting actual votes, but for now, Pete Buttigieg is everywhere.
The Wall Street Journal has attacked him as a Trojan horse for “packaging progressive policies and methods in a smooth, moderate persona.” The prime minister of Ireland tweeted at him about Ulysses and invited him to Dublin. And he really does answer questions in Norwegian and Italian.
At this rate, Buttigieg’s next interview might be a fun animal-facts quiz for National Geographic Kids. Even Playboy sent a reporter here to tag along with a man who talks about how much he loves his husband and wants to raise children with him.
This can all seem like flavor-of-the-month political coverage. But his event on Friday night in Manchester got so many RSVPs that it had to move from a bar to an art museum down the road. And even then there were more people chanting outside than most of the candidates are getting.
The next morning, here at a bookstore on the main stretch of the state capital, Buttigieg had to have security clear a path as he made his way through a crowd with Representative Ann Kuster at his side, visibly surprised by the turnout.
Yes, many of the people at both events told me, they can actually see this 37-year-old who probably couldn’t win his local House seat being the president. Of the United States. Like, giving the State of the Union and Oval Office addresses. Picking a Cabinet, responding to foreign terrorist attacks, negotiating with foreign leaders, introducing a budget. Or as Lucas Harrington, a 22-year-old student who got the mayor to sign his autobiography, put it to me, “I would imagine President Pete, because his name is going to be just as hard to pronounce if he wins.”
Three months ago, Buttigieg and I sat for two hours at a restaurant in New York, and no one knew who he was. A month ago, he was still being laughed off as the guy with the weird last name. He was running less of a campaign than an amazingly aggressive press operation.
These days, he’s the sensation with the weird last name: “In the Era of the Impossible, this could be happening. But can anyone pronounce his last name?” Matt Drudge tweeted on Monday afternoon.
After Buttigieg was shoved into the history section of the bookstore to answer questions from the media crush, I reminded him of our lunch. He laughed, and started looking through what was behind him, holding up Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk. He asked whether I’d read it. Then he found former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s book, In the Shadow of Statues, about the history of racism in his city. Mostly to himself, he said how great it was.
Admit it, I said to Buttigieg, when we sat down at a bagel shop three blocks away a little while later. This is crazy.
Buttigieg gave a chuckle, but not too much of a chuckle. “Hopefully it’s not completely crazy.”
By the time Buttigieg arrived at the bookstore, he’d spent close to an hour shaking hands and taking photos. At least 100 of the people who’d come hadn’t been able to see him around the obstacle of the bookshelves, but they’d stayed for the whole stump speech nonetheless. At one point on the street in Concord, what was supposed to be a quick photo to go with yet another profile became an almost paparazzi-level crush of cameras. He and his staff are just as surprised that his campaign has taken off like this, and that he got booked for Ellen before he finished hiring Iowa or New Hampshire directors. The plan was to build slowly, get articles written about him as an intriguing curiosity, hope for a breakout line in the first primary debate at the end of June, and then try to get a turn in the spotlight like this maybe at the end of the summer.
Instead, he’s spent the past few weeks already fielding questions about whether he is gay enough, whether he stands by the opioid-related consulting that McKinsey did while he worked in a completely different part of the business, and whether he should be made to answer for some of the things his late father, Joseph A. Buttigieg, an English professor at Notre Dame, wrote about Marxism.
“All of the little potshots are evidence that people are taking us seriously,” Buttigieg told me. “It’s a good sign.”
Never in his two campaigns for mayor of South Bend, Indiana, did Buttigieg draw crowds this big, he told me. Maybe at one of his inaugurations, he said, but added, with the sort of self-aware, semi-detached analysis that Buttigieg tends toward when talking about himself: “The swiftness of the change is pretty striking.”
Denise Clark, a 64-year-old former high-school teacher who stood waiting to meet Buttigieg on Friday night, clearly saw him as something more than a curiosity. “Perhaps it’s unusual,” she said of his campaign. “But he’s a young, accomplished man. Why not? He’s my daughter’s age. She’s accomplished. He’s accomplished. Why not?”
Buttigieg’s fans swoon over his résumé and admire his Zen openness. Glenn Hauser, a 48-year-old salesman, told me at the bookstore that this quality reminds him of the first candidate he ever supported, Steve Forbes (who ran for the GOP nomination in 1996 and 2000). Suzi White, 62 years old, compared Buttigieg to Barack Obama. “He’s so bright. Yes, he’s young,” she said, adding, “We’re hurting in this country, and he gets that, but he also gets the anger.”
“He’s a shorter, military-veteran, more educated version of myself,” said Francis Foley, a 38-year-old who drove two hours from Maine to see the candidate.
Buttigieg is smart enough to come up with interesting answers on the fly, and still enough of a long shot that he doesn’t have to worry too much about political calculations. It’s become a parlor game among some interviewers to see what they can get him to talk about, a candidate version of “Stump the Band.”
And then there’s the Trump factor, which helps boost them over the skepticism.
“I recognize that there’s concern about him not having been on the national stage,” said Katherine Nelson, who was reading Buttigieg’s book on her iPad while waiting to meet him on Friday night at the museum. “If Donald Trump weren’t the president now, I would perhaps think differently—but now all bets are off.”
Buttigieg gets that.
“The arrival of Trump made some of us question which rules still apply. Some people think there are no rules, which has resulted in some ‘Why not?’ candidacies. I don’t think that’s true,” he said, analyzing the race.
I stopped him. A lot of people still might say he’s running one of those “Why not?” campaigns himself.
“I was aware it might look that way. Hopefully at this point we’ve been able to demonstrate even to people we’ve not yet won over that we belong in this conversation,” Buttigieg said. “The challenge for us is the timeline’s shifted, because I thought this was still going to be the phase where we’re proving we belong here. Instead it’s a phase where we need to consolidate our support.”
Pundits laugh at the idea that Buttigieg will still be a factor in a month or two, let alone by the time the Iowa caucuses roll around in February. Conventional wisdom assumes that people with better chances include a 76-year-old former vice president who has flopped in all six of the previous presidential races he’s entered or explored, a 77-year-old socialist from Vermont, a former prosecutor from California, and a former three-term mostly undistinguished congressman from Texas who lost a Senate race. No such candidates have won before either, yet it’s Buttigieg who so far has been greeted with the most doubt, despite some polls that now have him in third place, and first-quarter fundraising numbers that have him in fourth place. He has had more big “moments” in the past few weeks than most candidates are likely to get in the whole race. His lines about getting rid of the Electoral College and reforming the Supreme Court prompted a number of other candidates to start saying similar things. And then there was the raw story he told at the LGBTQ Victory Fund brunch over the weekend about how as a teenager, if there had been a pill he could have taken to stop being gay, he would have taken it, and if there had been a part of himself he could have cut out with a knife so he wouldn’t have been gay anymore, he would have. “Thank god there was no pill,” he said. “Thank god there was no knife.”
There was a Grindr joke to lighten the mood, but then, in his distinctive mix of religious faith and forthrightness, and a challenge to the supposed Indiana values of Mike Pence, he said, “My marriage has made me a better man. And yes, Mr. Vice President, it has moved me closer to God.” He added: “If you’ve got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”
When he was a kid, he’d dreamed of being an astronaut, Buttigieg told the people attending the brunch, but the thought of standing in front of them as an openly gay candidate for president at 37 would have been even more far-fetched.
Buttigieg splashed into national politics by running for Democratic National Committee chair in 2017. He got a lot of good press then, but quit the race just before voting began. Most assume he probably would have gotten about five votes. Observers have been wondering whether this presidential run will end the same way—with all sorts of people saying how interesting and appealing Buttigieg is, even as they explain in the same breath that they’ll be voting for one of the other candidates with a better operation and a little more seasoning. That’s the question that’s looming now: Of course he can draw a crowd at a hipster bar or an art museum or a bookstore. Let’s see him actually turn out voters, the skeptics say, who aren’t white or wannabe intellectuals.
That, for example, is the assumed counterpoint to Beto O’Rourke, who right now seems to be Buttigieg’s competition for the lane of “interesting young white guy.” O’Rourke raised $9.2 million in the first quarter; Buttigieg raised $7 million. They both have Ivy League degrees; both are inspiring other young people.
O’Rourke is still driving himself around on his early state road trips and leaning more on feelings of uplift than specifics. He has also started to hire experienced operatives, including one of the most in-demand campaign managers in the country and one of the top veterans of Iowa campaigns to run his caucus plans. O’Rourke’s single new big, bold idea: promising to sign an executive order that would require his Cabinet secretaries to have a town-hall meeting every month.
Buttigieg says that he expects he’ll probably do some policy rollout of his own starting in May, as part of a reading on the race that “you’ve got to have a feat per month.” He disputes the idea that he needs to focus more on policy, though he notes that he’d like to see a health-care plan that accounts for the transition from the current system to universal coverage, and would like to see more attention paid to issues related to public education.
When he was running for mayor the first time, Buttigieg recalls, he was the only candidate who produced a written economic-development plan.
“I’m sure nobody read it. But everybody liked the idea that it was there. It was important that it was there, that you could check it if you wanted to. But I don’t know how many people actually consulted it,” Buttigieg said. “The whole point of electing politicians is to figure that out so you don’t have to. You’ve just got to make sure they have the right principles, and agree with you on the right stuff.”
He’s focused on getting more people to connect with what he calls the “intangibles.” To that end, he puts his impressive life forward as something that America made possible: the son of an immigrant who got into Harvard and became a Rhodes scholar, went back home and got elected mayor at 29 to help a hometown that was being sucked dry of any hope, and was able to marry the man he fell in love with because of the activism that produced the 2015 legalization decision by the Supreme Court.
“Of course, we’re all going to try to distinguish ourselves on matters of policy, but the truth is that something like 80 percent of Democrats’ messages are going to converge. We’re motivated by the same values, have a pretty similar understanding of what the problem is in Washington. Other than some differences in degree and a few individual signature programs that might be different, most of what you’re going to see is going to align,” he told me. “And so, even more than usual, I think some of these intangibles are going to matter—can I picture this candidate versus that candidate changing the political dynamic in this country, winning with this president, and bringing our party and our country together.”
After the Victory Fund brunch, I asked Buttigieg what he’d say to the people who think that O’Rourke is serious but he’s a long shot. He suppressed a laugh.
“Everybody’s going to have their different evaluations of our odds, but I think it’s great. I really respect and admire him, and so many of the people who’ve stepped forward in the 2020 process,” Buttigieg said.
Back in the beginning of January, Corey Johnson, the speaker of the New York City council, attended a small gathering at an Upper East Side apartment organized for people to get to know Buttigieg. Johnson walked away impressed but not at all convinced. On Sunday, after watching the past few weeks and the way Buttigieg was getting mobbed at the brunch, Johnson, who is openly gay himself, said he was amazed. “Three months ago, he was still Pete, but as the press and recognition has ratcheted up, so has his A game,” Johnson said, stressing that he was not making an endorsement.
“We’re not sure at this point if he’s Barack Obama,” Johnson said, “but this phenomenon and rise makes me think he’s more of a star than a comet.”