“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.”