The Buttigieg Boomlet Isn’t Like the Others

Mayor Pete has captivated the internet and Democratic donors, but it’s too soon to know whether he’ll break through or go the way of previous flavors of the moment.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

The Mayor Pete boomlet is real. The question is whether he’s on the edge of a breakthrough in the Democratic race—or likely to just be the butt of future jokes.

Not long ago, Pete Buttigieg was, if anything, that guy whose name no one seemed sure how to pronounce. But after a few weeks of extensive positive press, and the announcement of an impressive $7 million first-quarter fundraising haul, he’s now the guy who can unite powerful media Davids on the left and the right in admiration. Google Trends published this remarkable graph on Monday, showing Buttigieg’s rise to prominence:

But no one knows yet what that internet fame means in practical terms. Whether it pushes the South Bend, Indiana, mayor into the top tier of the Democratic race is unclear; perhaps more important at the moment is whether his momentum is sustainable, or simply a blip.

Candidate boomlets are not a new phenomenon. In 2011, my former colleague Molly Ball joked that there was a boomlet boom in the GOP field. They seem to be a phenomenon of the modern media era, with a political press corps that’s heavily focused on the presidential race, highly diffuse, social-media driven, and runs 24 hours a day—all of which encourages passing infatuations with shiny new candidates, who can be discarded once they become tarnished or merely dull.

Consider Herman Cain, whose 2012 rise and abrupt collapse was perhaps the most astonishing boomlet in recent memory. Like Buttigieg, who is a small-city mayor, Cain was an unlikely presidential contender—his major claim to fame was as the head of Godfather’s Pizza, which isn’t even the South Bend, Indiana, of pizza chains. In a way, it feels unfair to compare Buttigieg—a Rhodes Scholar with government experience who has shown a deft grasp of policy details so far—to Cain, whose signature idea was a nonsensical tax plan. On the other hand, it seems unfair to compare Cain to Buttigieg, whose best showing in any poll so far is 4 percent. By contrast, Cain managed to nearly quintuple his share in polls over the course of a single month in the fall of 2011, hitting a high of 26 percent in the RealClearPolitics average. Soon, however, allegations of sexual harassment earlier in Cain’s career surfaced, and soon after he quit the race.

What can we learn from Cain’s boomlet? The first lesson is that little-known candidates are a volatile prospect because, unlike more experienced politicians who have faced the press glare at the national or even state level, they are relatively unvetted. This means that when they’re discovered, they can soar with the attention of a newly interested press. But once their weaknesses are discovered, they can quickly crash.

Another is that Cain’s boomlet, like many in the past, was the fruit of voters turning against something. Cain was just one of a few Republicans to experience a bubble that year, along with former Texas Governor Rick Perry, former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The reason was that Republican voters that year were cycling through contenders to find someone—anyone—other than Mitt Romney to nominate, before finally realizing that the ex–Massachusetts governor was their best bet. (Though not a winning bet, as it turned out.) Something similar happened in 2004, when retired Army General Wesley Clark briefly made a splash in the Democratic primary. His military résumé made him stand apart from the rest of the Democratic field, until a few weeks of watching his actual campaign showed he was just as hapless as rivals such as then-Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman.

But the Buttigieg boomlet is a little different. Buttigieg isn’t really popping up as an alternative to any particular Democrat, because there isn’t a clear front-runner in the race. Former Vice President Joe Biden continues to lead in every poll, but he still hasn’t actually entered the race, and many political analysts consider his numbers to be fragile—especially after two accusations of inappropriate touching against him by women in the past week.

The current Buttigieg moment is also different because it’s so early in the campaign. There’s simply no effective analogue, since there’s never been a presidential race that was in such full swing by April the year before the election. Because previous races have started later, boomlets have happened closer to the primaries or once they’re under way. One possible interpretation is that Buttigieg risks peaking too soon, when the race has barely begun, and with a crowded waiting room of other Democrats hoping for their own boomlets. It also means he’ll draw slings and arrows he might otherwise have dodged for a time.

But given how small his profile was to begin with, Buttigieg probably needed the attention now. It allowed him to bring in the big $7 million fundraising figure. That puts his name alongside people such as Senators Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders and former Representative Beto O’Rourke, and shows he can hang with them, though he trails them. The money can also fund the ground operation in early states that Buttigieg has so far been lacking. That doesn’t guarantee he will be able to compete long into the campaign, but it’s probably a necessity.

Probably. There’s one former boomlet candidate who suggests otherwise. He was widely viewed by pundits as another Cain-style curiosity who would flame out. Like Buttigieg, he was able to harness social-media buzz to grab more attention. But this candidate didn’t use it to build a robust campaign team or ground game. Nor did he flame out as the campaign wore on. Instead, he surprised expectations and become President Donald Trump in January 2017. And now, Pete Buttigieg is hoping for a chance to run against him in the 2020 election.