Pete Buttigieg Isn’t Going Anywhere

This year, the Millennial mayor became a household name. Now how does he translate that into votes?

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg thanks campaign volunteers in New Hampshire
Brian Snyder / Reuters

It’s not just you. Pete Buttigieg knows this is a little crazy, too.

He knows it’s crazy that, back in January, his campaign had to schedule his launch announcement at a hotel a few blocks from the White House to persuade enough reporters to cover it, and that now there’s such a demand for his all-access bus tour this weekend, they have to rotate reporters in between stops. He knows it’s crazy that he almost delayed his announcement because his father had moved into the ICU the weekend before, and that he made it home just in time before he died. He knows it's crazy that in March 2018, he took iPhone photos of the God Hates Fags sign outside the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, and that he has since married another man and cites his own experience as a gay man on the campaign trail to connect with others who face discrimination.

Because he’s Pete Buttigieg, a history and literature major at Harvard and former McKinsey consultant, here’s how he talks about his journey: “It’s tough to say what it’s like with any kind of meaningful critical distance, because you’re just in it.”

When I asked Buttigieg which is more ridiculous, the idea of a black freshman senator winning the presidency in 2008, or the idea of the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, getting elected now, he said, “I would like to argue that neither is ridiculous.” Buttigieg’s response carried a characteristic edge to it: “He had more national exposure sooner than I did. But then I have the benefit of executive experience. So I guess we’re just different.”

(Our full interview can be heard on the latest episode of the Radio Atlantic podcast.)

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We’ve reached an odd moment in an odd Democratic-primary race. With less than 100 days until the Iowa caucuses, former Vice President Joe Biden is struggling to hang on to his lead in the polls and is short on cash. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is making some people nervous that she’ll be Hillary Clinton and George McGovern rolled into one, and that nominating her means throwing the election to Donald Trump. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is recovering from a heart attack, and some observers believe that he has reached his ceiling of support. And while many voters keep saying they haven’t made up their minds yet, 14 other candidates are trying to convince voters and themselves there’s still a way to pull it off.

And then there’s Buttigieg. Several top Democratic officials who are not backing any candidate, as well as some operatives who are, have told me in the past two weeks that there’s a spot for him, but that the nominee can’t be him. They say the same things: He’s too young, too inexperienced, and unable to draw support from African American voters. They worry about the question that keeps coming up in focus groups and that reporters are beginning to ask: whether he’s struggling to win people over because he’s gay.

In Rock Hill, South Carolina, last weekend, I asked people at a Buttigieg town hall whether they thought he was ready to do the job. “Have you ever listened to him speak? He’s got brains, he’s got class, he’s got poise,” Chuck McKinney, a retired carpenter who’d driven in from Lake Lure, North Carolina, told me.

This is the point in the 2008 race when Barack Obama began an ascent that never stopped. He broke out at the Iowa Democratic Party dinner in November 2007. (This year’s dinner is scheduled for tonight.) That night, Obama talked about “a defining moment in our history” and having “lost faith that our leaders can and will do anything about it,” so “the same old Washington textbook campaigns just won’t do.”

Buttigieg’s campaign has leaned into the Obama comparisons for a while. On Wednesday, his team sent an email to supporters from Larry Grisolano, a consultant who worked for Obama and has been on Buttigieg’s campaign since the summer: “Pete’s campaign this year is rekindling the same excitement I felt at this time in 2007,” he wrote.

And notice how Buttigieg delivers his big finale on the stump these days:

“I know hope went out of style,” Buttigieg said in Rock Hill on Saturday. He asked the crowd: “Do you have a sense of hope to bring about change for our republic?”

He’s a young veteran and a polyglot from the Midwest talking about a record of accountable local government. He is strangely fit for this political moment, but he’s also fitting himself for it constantly.

Here’s Buttigieg on his bus tour in September, talking about his time as a McKinsey consultant: “It’s not something that I think is central in my story.” Here’s Buttigieg onstage at the last debate, talking about his time in the Navy Reserves: “It’s an important part of my story and how I come at the world.”

It’s about crafting not just the message, but the messenger.

The bowl cut and suit-with-no-tie look that he used for his official mayoral photo has been replaced by the white-shirt, blue-tie, no-jacket combo that’s now recognizable enough to be a DIY Halloween costume.

But the core brilliance of Buttigieg’s campaign is making the carefully planned seem nonchalant, like he’s ambling when in fact he’s in the middle of a plié. Every sentence is precisely arranged, the words weighted, playing off ideas like faith and security and freedom. Operatives on other campaigns grumble that he’s a construction, a “celebrity” who wows reporters looking for the hot new thing, but it’s working.

When I asked how his whopping total of 19,506 votes between two mayoral races could actually win a presidential election, he called that “an exquisitely Washington mind-set.” When asked whether he’s the epitome of white, male privilege, he turns it back with, “When it comes to identity, I am very mindful of the privileges that go with being white and being male. I also have the experience of belonging to a category of people in America that would have been assumed to be effectively ineligible for the presidency.”

Or there’s the latest line that he appears so eager to push, he hit it twice at the October Democratic debate and has repeated it at nearly every recent public appearance: “I want you to picture what it’s going to be like, what it’s actually going to feel like in this country, the first day the sun comes up after Donald Trump has been president,” he said on the debate stage in Ohio. “It starts out feeling like a happy thought; this particular brand of chaos and corruption will be over. But really think about where we’ll be: vulnerable, even more torn apart by politics than we are right now.”

All the more reason not to go with Buttigieg, his doubters say.

“The next president will inherit a divided nation, and a divided world. A world in disarray,” Biden said Wednesday night at a town hall in Dubuque, Iowa, seeming to go in Buttigieg’s direction. “It’s going to require someone who can unify this nation, and someone who can command the respect of leaders the moment he or she takes the world stage. There will be no time for on-the-job training.”

Aha! Buttigieg says: Now is his time. Now more than ever, in fact.

“Look, they blew everything up, which means that there is a chance to build something new and better on the rubble,” Buttigieg said. “I mean, not to over-dramatize it, but I think about areas where buildings have been destroyed in the world, and then architecture of a new kind flourishes.”

When asked whether he’s scared of Trump’s attack tweets, he says he’s taken “worse incoming.” Some people interpret this to mean he’s referring to firefights in Afghanistan, but he never saw combat during his deployment. He’s talking about hearing the rocket sirens on his base: “I never had one impact close enough to me that the shrapnel came near me,” he said. “But you have a few seconds, and then if you hear a boom, then you know it landed. And you know you’re alive and you get back up and go back to work.”

He was an intelligence officer stationed in Afghanistan; he rarely ventured outside the wire, and mostly guarded transports when he did. “My vehicle, to my knowledge, was never targeted,” Buttigieg said, already preparing to turn it into the point he’s making. “So I don’t go around acting like I was out in the Korangal Valley. I’m somebody who did my part. But I think it’s an important contrast to draw with somebody who avoided doing his part when it was his turn.”

Over the past few weeks, Buttigieg has not-so-subtly presented himself as a Biden alternative. Sitting in a coffee shop in Concord, New Hampshire, in April, Buttigieg told me he didn’t think going deep on policy was a priority. He brought up an economic-development plan he wrote when first running for mayor that he said maybe a dozen people actually read. In September, he released his “Medicare for All Who Want It” plan, which has a policy paper behind it, but is basically appealing wordplay to get a message to people who will never read the whole thing, which is most people: “I’m not for eliminating private plans,” he said, “so I’m glad that we found a way in a headline to explain it.”

“He’s got workable ideas,” says Sherre Kearn, who works for the state government in Columbia, South Carolina, and had driven up to Rock Hill to hold a big Buttigieg sign last weekend. She says she voted for Sanders in the 2016 primaries because of his focus on health care, but now she’s backing Buttigieg because she thinks he’s talking about practical solutions to health care.

Buttigieg has been accused mostly by Sanders and Warren supporters of tacking to the center in the past few weeks, with accusations that he came in bold when there was nothing to lose but now wants to come across as acceptable when winning is theoretically in sight.

“My positions have been consistent,” he says. “Some of the takes seem to be changing.”

He had $22 million on hand at the end of September, and the money keeps coming in, but he’s still a long way from first place, and always has been. And many political veterans believe that if somehow Buttigieg does make it to a two-way race with Warren, he won’t make it further than that, given his inability to attract the African American voters that would really make him the Biden alternative, given that they have been his backstop.

Buttigieg makes this next point because it’s self-serving, but it also happens to be true: Each of the four Democratic presidents since World War II (not counting the two who took over for dead men) were young and inexperienced: John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Obama. Candidates who get called “presidential,” Republican or Democrat, tend not to become president at all.

Trump has already made an issue of Buttigieg looking young enough to get carded, and never having done much. Buttigieg welcomes that.

“He might make it about age and experience, but fundamentally, that’s an argument about judgment and wisdom,” Buttigieg said. “And I think in a judgment and wisdom contest, this president’s on pretty shaky ground.”

He has another line he uses often, about how if there aren’t the kind of big changes he says his presidency would bring about, then the American experiment could unravel.

How close to the brink does he think we are?

“Closer than we think,” he said.