When Pete Buttigieg announced that he was running for president, the general feeling was he was a minor candidate at best. At 37, he’s just two years older than the office requires, and thirty (even forty) years younger than some of his Democratic rivals. The only elected office he has held is mayor of South Bend, Indiana, which, with a population of 102,000, is hardly a metropolis.
And then there’s the gay thing. As an openly gay candidate, Buttigieg seemed easy to classify as a novelty. All in all, Buttigieg looked like he was destined to be a footnote in a crowded presidential field.
It’s not turning out that way. Not at all.
Buttigieg is proving to be a credible candidate simply by being himself. His appearance at a CNN Town Hall last week was a turning point. Buttigieg impressed the audience and pundits by his plainspokenness and command of facts, to say nothing of his ability to turn a phrase.
He called Vice President Mike Pence, whom Buttigieg knows personally, the “cheerleader of the porn presidency,” a description that will haunt Pence for years and will serve as an epitaph for his career.
Buttigieg did such a good job that he raised $600,000 from 22,000 donors in just 24 hours. Within a few days, Buttigieg was able to announce that he had hit the threshold of 65,000 donors necessary to qualify him for the Democratic candidates’ debate.
Meantime, the mayor showed how to parry with other contenders. When Starbucks founder Howard Schulz, who is mulling over a run as an independent, suggested that he knew more about the military than anyone else because he hung out with military leaders, Buttigieg threw just the right amount of shade.
“I remember a Green Beans Coffee at the exchange at Bagram, and a decent espresso machine run by the Italian NATO element at ISAF HQ,” Buttigieg tweeted. (Buttigieg served as a naval intelligence officer in Afghanistan). “But I don’t recall seeing any Starbucks over there.”
Buttigieg also stands in contrast to the other candidate who, on the surface, is most like him: Beto O’Rourke.
O’Rourke is a little older, but similarly promises a generational change in Democratic politics. Both know how to exploit social media. But O’Rourke, who announced his candidacy for president last week, has come under criticism for his lack of policy detail and for being an example of white male privilege.
Buttigieg’s response to O’Rourke’s candidacy was to joke that he has the “white Episcopalian gay veteran” lane to himself. Which raises another interesting point: The media acknowledges Buttigieg’s gayness but that’s not what they find most interesting about him. As a flattering profile in the Washington Post notes, what sets Buttigieg apart is that he’s been able to distinguish himself, which is not small feat.
“The buzz that’s surrounding him, at least for now, reflects how fluid, unpredictable and fractured the Democratic race has become, without a clear leader and with various candidates attracting attention at different times and for different reasons,” the Post noted.
To be clear, Buttigieg has the kind of background that is tailor-made for a presidential candidate: Harvard, Rhodes scholar, veteran. He also has a big uphill battle. Most people don’t know who he is; he’s polling at one percent. He’s not the fundraising juggernaut that other candidates (including O’Rourke) are. The media’s love affair with him now can quickly turn, as the press decides the pendulum has swung too far in that direction.
Yet so far, Buttigieg’s candidacy has been more successful than anyone would have predicted. Seeing him arrayed on a stage crowded with first-tier candidates will further boost his credibility. Maybe Buttigieg doesn’t win the nomination for president, at least not this time around. But he’s definitely paved the way for a bigger presence in the Democratic party.