Mayor Pete Just Can’t Lose

9 mins read


Pete Buttigieg felt like a winner in the first two Democratic primary contests. He finished very narrowly behind Bernie Sanders in the Iowa and New Hampshire raw vote totals but edged out Sanders in Iowa “state delegate equivalents” and tied him in Granite State delegates. So yes, Buttigieg can call himself victorious. He is the co-frontrunner few would have bet on to perform so well, and is ahead of the Vermont senator in the overall delegate count.

Mayor Pete has proven not only to be a compelling candidate with a resonant message but an effective campaigner whose organization has not only outperformed most other candidates but competed with the grassroots army Sanders has had in place for four years.

Sanders, who also claims wins in both early states and is now in first place in many national polls, predicates his electability on building a new electorate, including awakened non-voters. This, in theory, would produce a wave large enough to not only defeat President Trump but elect enough new Democrats in Congress to pass revolutionary changes in education, health care and the economy. But Sanders’ Iowa and New Hampshire results don’t illustrate that movement exists. Indeed, he couldn’t convince even half the voters he won in New Hampshire in 2016 to support him again, and it was Buttigieg — not Sanders — who won the most new voters in the Granite State and had the broadest coalition.

As the race now moves to Nevada and South Carolina, Buttigieg is taking on Sanders as a proud wine-cave fundraiser who argues that fantastical plans like “Medicare for All” frighten people and won’t win in November. On the right side of his party, he campaigns as the fresher, more future-oriented moderate who can incorporate progressive ideas to attract and excite more voters than Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Vice President Joe Biden and former mayor and media mogul Mike Bloomberg.

Of course it could all end badly. Doubters say he’s too young, and openly gay, and has only served as mayor of a 100,000-person city. Realists say he has no support from black voters. Buttigieg is hoping for a second look beyond whites, based on the belief that winning has strengthened the argument he is electable and can beat Trump. He raised $4 million since Iowa from 30,000 new donors, including key business executives. But Buttigieg won’t be the nominee if he can’t improve his dismal standing with African Americans, among whom he has topped out at 4% in polling.

Doubts about him will continue all the way to the convention (or until he concedes the race and ends his campaign). But he is likely to gain the most from defeat. He has defied expectations, built an effective campaign and a national following and made history. To Hoosiers who know him, it’s all familiar — Pete wins by losing.

He lost badly in 2010 when he ran for state treasurer, earning only 37.5% of the vote. He came in third when he ran for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee in 2017. But his treasurer run brought the 28-year-old to all 92 counties and made connections that would later help his mayoral bid. His run for DNC broadened his national base of contacts and would-be donors. Those who have watched his career knew he would run for president one day after being mayor since the long shot of the 2020 nomination was actually more realistic than a Democrat winning a gubernatorial or Senate race in a solid red state.

“He worked very hard and he never got discouraged,” said an Indiana Democrat who knows him and his witnessed his rise. “He’s never been afraid of taking a chance.”

The only child of professors, Peter Paul Montgomery Buttigieg regularly attends church, and spends time with books and music and instruments – he’s a concert pianist who also plays bass, guitar and harmonica. He is fluent in eight languages. His resume is so exhausting to consume that it reads like an academic treatise. He has been a consultant at McKinsey & Co., a campaign staffer several times over for Senate, gubernatorial and presidential races, South Bend mayor and a decorated U.S. Navy Reserve veteran who served in Afghanistan. He is also a Rhodes scholar who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, and of course was his high school valedictorian in 2000. That year he also won the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum’s Profiles in Courage essay contest when he wrote about — yes — the integrity of then-Rep. Bernie Sanders, who was then one of only two independents in the House of Representatives. Mayor Pete is now America’s first ever openly gay presidential candidate. Even if he doesn’t win the nomination or the presidency this year, the “Maltese-American left-handed Episcopalian gay war veteran mayor millennial” has proven quite the brand.

Though he’s made some policy-position adjustments along the way, throughout Buttigieg’s year-long adventure from unknown Midwest mayor to serious presidential contender he has never changed his pitch for “generational change.” It’s a message delivered by a young-old wise man; his candidate persona definitely has a grandfatherly vibe. Yet as Trump and Bernie rage to their voters, Pete — though he occasionally looks quite pissed off, and can seem edgy and arrogant — refuses to traffic in anger.  He is a gifted speaker, engendering trust among his supporters despite his age and minimal executive-level experience because he has succeeded in making “people feel things they haven’t felt in a while,” he told the New York Times. “One of them is hope. Another one of them is calm.”

While Buttigieg would be the youngest-ever president, if he is not in the White House next year he has accomplished more, and sought to learn more, at 38 than most of us can hope to by 98. With his curiosity and ambition, this is clearly the early stages of a journey that may not have a clear destination, but it’s one that embraces failure as a means to climb higher.

Buttigieg’s campaign website says: “There is no honest politics that revolves around the word ‘again.’” It’s biting and clever. And if Mayor Pete isn’t the nominee this year, be assured he will be back. Again.

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist. 


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