Election Commentary

The Pete Buttigieg phenomenon hasn’t caught on with younger voters

Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Joe3030, Joe 3-0-3-3-0
Pete Buttigieg smiles while surrounded by supporters.Photo: Shutterstock

With just a month away from the first votes in the Democratic presidential race, Pete Buttigieg is sitting pretty. He outraised many of his competitors (except for Bernie Sanders) in the fourth quarter, and he’s a frontrunner, if not the frontrunner, in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire.

There are some obstacles the candidate still must overcome for a clear path to the nomination. One is gaining the trust of black voters, but the other demographic where Buttigieg is underperforming is surprising: young voters.

Related: Internet ponders if Mayor Pete (or devoted friend) was behind his Wikipedia edits

At 37, Buttigieg is just two years older than the minimum age to run for president. His lived experience is that of a millennial, in sharp contrast to the aging boomers who are his rivals. Yet Buttigieg’s supporters skew much older than the candidate. While some younger millennial and Gen Z voters are downright hostile to him, older voters have gravitated to him more – some even feeling that “he’s sort of an old soul.”

Buttigieg himself is aware of the phenomenon. “It’s hard for me to understand,” Buttigieg has said about older voters’ affinity for him – which he has apparently had since running for mayor in South Bend, Indiana. “But we’ve definitely noticed the pattern.”

One of the main issues for this demographic is Buttigieg’s moderate politics. As a result, he will have a much harder time peeling supporters from the likes of Bernie Sanders, or other progressives who are hoping to push the Demorats to the left. In fact, many young progressives find that Buttigieg represents everything they hate about the Democratic establishment, and they do little to mask their outright hostility to him.

An op-ed in Teen Vogue said that, “Despite his down-to-earth, Midwestern presentation and the unprecedented nature of both his age and sexuality as a presidential candidate, Buttigieg is — more than anything — a chance for big business as usual.” Jacobin said that the candidate’s “smartness” (their quotation marks) represents “social Darwinism for elite liberals.”

For many of these progressive voters, the Democrats have been tied for too long to the big donor, Ivy League nexus. It’s infuriating to see someone of their own generation perpetuating the very model that they hope to assign to history’s dustbin. They want a revolution, and Buttigieg has made it clear he isn’t the type to grab a pitchfork and lead it. Other younger voters probably aren’t paying much attention at present – many are not as politically engaged as older voters, and they vote at a much lower rate than older voters.

Whoever wins the nomination is going to depend upon huge turnout for victory. Just as Trump is motivating evangelicals, the Democratic nominee is going to have to whip up enthusiasm among the party’s base, including young voters. The worst thing that could happen is a replay of 2016, where some voters are so dissatisfied with the Democrats that Trump could squeak through again.

While it’s still too early to tell, that remains an unfortunate possibility.

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