The Audacity of Pete

The former South Bend, Indiana, mayor chose to give a bold victory speech before any official results were released, undercutting his rivals.

Pete Buttigieg addresses supporters in Des Moines, Iowa. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

DES MOINES, Iowa—The thing about a victory speech, generally, is that it requires a victory. But when this year’s Iowa caucus didn’t quickly produce one, Pete Buttigieg claimed the win as his anyway.

The other candidates who spoke last night mumbled about the mess, proclaimed “on to New Hampshire!,” and said all the other things you’re supposed to say when results are up in the air. Buttigieg strutted onstage, smiling confidently as his well-prepped supporters chanted “BOOT-EDGE-EDGE” behind him, and in his very first sentence declared that “an improbable hope became an undeniable reality.

“We don’t know all the results,” Buttigieg added in a riff that was, like the rest of the speech, designed to evoke former President Barack Obama. “But we know, by the time it’s all said and done, Iowa, you have shocked the nation, because by all indications, we are going on to New Hampshire victorious.”

Maybe it’s his calculated manner, or the way he waves at a crowd like an animatronic member of the British royal family, or his midwestern aw-shucks niceness. But more than a year into his presidential campaign, despite all the attention paid to his candidacy, people still miss how aggressive Buttigieg is.

That’s what the victory-without-a-victory speech he gave last night was about.

Compare Buttigieg’s message with that of Joe Biden, who gave a shorter, less scripted speech. “We feel good about where we are,” the former vice president said. “We’re going to do this, I promise you. I promise you we’re going to get this done. God willing, we’ll do it together. On to New Hampshire!”

The preliminary results that had come in by then were from caucus sites clustered around cities, where voters’ education levels and ideological inclinations would seem to make them prime Buttigieg pickups. Even those results were sparse; Buttigieg’s campaign was also working off data that its own network was gathering from around the state. Buttigieg apparently saw enough to feel like he could go hard. “Iowa chose a new path,” he announced. American democracy had taken another credibility hit through the cockamamie collapse of the caucus. Just like when George W. Bush announced, in the middle of the 2000 Florida recount, that Colin Powell would be his secretary of state, Buttigieg tried to convey that he had the situation under control.

As with nearly everything Buttigieg does, this was deliberate. His campaign was aware of how much he’d annoy the other candidates by undercutting them, but staffers were willing to take the backlash for the sake of breaking through to voters who just wanted a sense of who won.

“Peak white male privilege,” tweeted Meena Harris, the niece of Senator Kamala Harris, another Democratic presidential candidate until she suspended her campaign in December, “is declaring victory with 0% of precincts reporting.” This morning, the former Massachusetts governor and trailing presidential candidate Deval Patrick lumped Buttigieg in with Biden, whose campaign jumped out front in seeding suspicion about the results: “One candidate is calling the results into question because he apparently didn’t do well. Another is declaring victory without any votes being confirmed. The way to beat Donald Trump isn’t to act like Donald Trump.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota tried an aggressive move of her own, giving the first speech of the night. Acknowledging that the process was going slower than expected, she argued that “we are punching above our weight.” A few minutes after Klobuchar finished, Biden suddenly appeared onstage at his party. By the time he finished his brief remarks, his campaign had sent out a protest letter to the Iowa Democratic Party complaining about the counting delays. Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts talked about being in the campaign for the “long haul”—something many politicians say when a primary or caucus night doesn’t turn out the way they’d hoped. Buttigieg, by contrast, said he was “one step closer to becoming the next president of the United States.”

The Buttigieg and Sanders campaigns were the only ones to release any results last night, compiled by precinct captains at sites around the state. Sanders’s numbers showed him in first place and Buttigieg in second, though the figures were clearly incomplete. Buttigieg’s data also seemed hazy and full of fudges. This morning, Warren’s campaign announced it would start releasing similar data, but with photographic evidence gathered by its workers from sites state-wide.

An irony of Buttigieg’s victory speech is that in the days leading up to the caucus, his campaign staffers warned reporters not to fall for the Sanders campaign trying to claim victory out of early results. But by the time Buttigieg left Iowa, in the middle of the night, his campaign was the one out on a limb, hoping that by the time the state Democratic Party sorts out what’s going on, he’ll have come in first, or at least second.

“If you can be a confident voice in chaos, people will believe you,” Hilary Rosen, a leading Democratic communications consultant who was in Des Moines for caucus night but not working for any campaign, told me after Buttigieg’s speech. “And then you just hope it lasts.”

The mess meant Buttigieg didn’t get to bask in the history of being the first LGBT candidate ever to win delegates in a presidential election. But he wanted to make sure he’d get another chance. Shortly before dawn, he landed in New Hampshire and got back on the trail.