How the mayor of South Bend became a surprisingly serious contender in the 2020 Democratic primary race.
As strange as it may sound, the mayor of a medium-size city in the Midwest is now a real contender for the Democratic nomination for the presidency.
A late March Quinnipiac poll had Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, tied with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) for fifth place nationally, putting him ahead of Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). On Monday, Buttigieg announced that his campaign raised more than $7 million in the first quarter of 2019, a non-trivial figure for a candidate whom almost no one took seriously when he first entered the race. And a recent Economist/YouGov poll found Buttigieg was one of only three candidates in the Democratic field with a net-positive national approval (though a majority of those polled didn’t know enough about him to have an opinion).
Buttigieg has a kind of dual appeal. Some moderates like his Midwestern background, elite credentials (he’s a graduate of Harvard and Oxford), and soft-spoken but knowledgeable way of talking about policy. Liberal Democrats see in Buttigieg an intellectual who could be President Trump’s polar opposite, and whose focus on political reforms like abolishing the Electoral College channels their frustration with a system that feels rigged in the GOP’s favor.
“In recent times, appealing to Republican legislators has been wasteful because they’ve mostly been acting in bad faith,” Buttigieg told me in a phone call last week.
Interviews and press appearances like our call have, so far, been the bread and butter of his campaign. After a breakout performance at a CNN town hall in early March, Buttigieg has received a significant increase in media attention and positive coverage. (By now, many more people know that it’s pronounced “Boot-edge-edge.”) His campaign has leveraged this into social media popularity and viral stardom, all of which has translated to a significant bump in the polls and fundraising.
How Buttigieg and his team handle going from sideshow to the main stage will, ultimately, define whether the recent poll bump is a blip or the beginning of something bigger. So far, Buttigieg has benefited from positive media coverage and an undefined national reputation; the more serious he becomes, the more he’ll face questions about his past from reporters and opposing campaigns, critiques from within the party, and pressure to take a clearer side in the party’s internal ideological wars.
But these are choices all serious candidates face. And at this point, there’s no denying that Mayor Pete is a serious candidate.
“He’s got the swoon factor, the young factor, the honest-to-the-point-of-vulnerable factor, and he’s great on the stump,” Jennifer Victor, a political scientist at George Mason University, tells me. “By standard measures, he shouldn’t be doing that well, but I think American presidential primary politics are well beyond standard measures.”
Why Pete Buttigieg thinks he should be president
Media coverage of Buttigieg tends to focus on his biography and impeccable elite credentials.
Born in 1982, near the beginning of the millennial generation, he graduated from Harvard and won a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford. He went on to work at McKinsey, the giant consulting company, then enlist in the military — as a gay man — before the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He did a seven-month tour in Afghanistan as a naval reserve officer. He reportedly speaks seven languages, and he apparently learned Norwegian for the sole purpose of reading an interesting-sounding book.
But Buttigieg didn’t come out of nowhere. He’s been seen as a rising star in national Democratic politics since his election as mayor of South Bend, Indiana’s fourth-largest city, in 2011. On his way out of office, President Barack Obama named Buttigieg as one of several future leaders of the Democratic Party.
Buttigieg’s bid in 2017 to be the chair of the Democratic National Committee failed — he dropped out just before the first round of ballots — but that did little to dampen the party’s enthusiasm for the young mayor. And in 2019, he almost seems lab-engineered to appeal to a variety of Democrats looking for a clear antidote to Trump. Moderates look at his biography and see someone they aren’t scared of; the liberal partisans that make up much of the party’s base look at his positions and rhetoric and see someone who’s their kind of fighter.
Buttigieg’s bare-bones website has no issues page (despite his emerging reputation as a big-thinking candidate). But cobble together his policy positions from various public appearances and it’s clear that he’s solidly progressive in a way that could satisfy the Democratic base’s hunger for a bolder, less centrist approach to policy.
Buttigieg has endorsed a single-payer health care system, although he proposes starting out with a transition policy like a public option or all-payer rate setting. He’s said the Green New Deal is a “sound framework” for tackling climate change and called for a withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. He has defended Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a 70 percent effective marginal tax rate, though he stopped short of openly committing himself to a particular rate.
He’s been most specific, though, about structural change and electoral reform.
Like Elizabeth Warren, Buttigieg supports abolishing the Electoral College. He’s also endorsed automatic voter registration and statehood for Puerto Rico and Washington, DC, and signaled openness to abolishing the Senate filibuster.
But his most interesting idea, which he detailed in an interview with the Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan, is to radically overhaul the Supreme Court.
“One solution that I’ve been discussing in recent weeks is structuring it with 15 members, but five of whom can only be seated by a unanimous consensus of the other 10,” he said to Hasan. “Anything that would make a Supreme Court vacancy less of an apocalyptic ideological struggle would be an improvement.”
This answer — one of the more radical plans for changing the Supreme Court I’ve seen from a mainstream political figure — speaks to the heart of Buttigieg’s political appeal among the Democratic base. He addresses the broader Democratic Party’s sense of being victimized by a system that favors Republicans and by a party willing to play hardball in pushing voter ID laws, gerrymandering, and the theft of Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court seat.
Buttigieg might be a quiet and reserved guy, but he embodies a kind of political boldness. Rather than forge a policy compromise with Republicans, he wants to transform ideas and structures that define American politics. If Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is a class warrior, Pete Buttigieg is a partisan warrior.
“I think we’re in a tectonic shift in America such that even now we may be underreacting to how deep this moment is. I mean, you have basically a 30- or 40-year-long Reagan consensus that that held sway over this country. … And that’s, that’s done,” he told my colleague Ezra Klein. “I think it’s a moment that’s really crying out for big ideas and for us to pay attention to just really profound things happening.”
Buttigieg has elite credentials. But he doesn’t appear heavily invested in all the niceties of elite politics, where a peculiar notion of “civility” is often used to oppose efforts to go after Republican politicians themselves. When former Vice President Joe Biden labeled current Vice President Mike Pence a “decent guy,” Buttigieg took exception. In an interview with BuzzFeed, he challenged the notion of separating Pence’s personal politeness from his overall political worldview.
“I mean, to your face, if he were sitting right here, you’d think that this guy is very polite,” Buttigieg said. “But that masks this absolutely fanatical view about how the world works or how the universe works that has led to these incredibly hurtful, dangerous, and harmful policies, and that’s what we have now in the White House. And I think it chills a lot of us, especially in the LGBTQ community, to see that somebody like that can be in that kind of position of power.”
For all these reasons, Buttigieg feels to a lot of Democrats like a different kind of candidate: neither a poll-tested milquetoast centrist nor a part of an entrenched party faction, but a competent executive whose vision directly addresses their Trump-era anxieties and partisan anger. This seems perfect for a kind of relatively educated Democratic voter who consumes a lot of political media, someone who waxes nostalgic for the Obama presidency and listens to every episode of Pod Save America — a show whose hosts, incidentally, are big Buttigieg fans.
“Pete Buttigieg is a really fascinating guy who has a lot [of] interesting things to say about politics in this era and has clearly thought very hard about why he is running for President,” tweeted Dan Pfeiffer, one of the show’s hosts and a former Obama senior adviser.
Yet at the same time, Buttigieg manages to present this agenda in such a way as to come across both principled and nonpartisan to more moderate audiences.
Take his plan for Supreme Court reform. Given the Court’s current ideological composition, adding more justices would likely be a huge win for Democratic partisan interests. But when Buttigieg was discussing the proposal with Klein, he presented it in the neutral language of good government and the health of American institutions.
“It irritates me a little bit that every time I talk about a Supreme Court reform to make the institution less political, someone writes a gloss on it that makes it sound like I’m proposing that we simply add justices for the purpose of pulling the Court further to the left,” he said. “Anything we do needs to be rooted in making sense in principle. And something that makes sense in principle is to protect the Court from being the scene of an apocalyptic ideological fight every time the vacancy opens, and to set up the Court so that it has more people thinking for themselves.”
You may think that this argument is disingenuous, a mask. But it comes across as sincere even to center-right establishmentarians like New York Times columnist David Brooks and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough. Buttigieg is able to both be a partisan warrior for the base and present an attractive image for moderates: a kind of “everything to everyone” appeal that resembles no one more than Barack Obama.
Buttigieg’s case for himself depends on his record as mayor
All of that is fine in theory. But in practice, can a mayor of a city of about 100,000 people really make the jump to being the most powerful person in the world?
I put this question to Buttigieg directly, asking him why any Democratic voters should back him over senators or governors or a former vice president. His answer had two parts.
First, he said, mayors have a level of executive experience that helps them understand what it’s like to manage a series of different complex policy issues at once — enough, at least, to make being president feasible.
“Nobody walks into the Oval Office knowing what it’s like to be president,” Buttigieg said. “I’d argue that being a mayor of a city of any size … means that you have the on-the-ground, day-to-day, executive experience of government at its core.”
Second, he argues, geography matters. South Bend is a former industrial town in the Midwest heartland, one that suffered tremendously from things like the closure of a Studebaker auto manufacturing plant in 1963. Buttigieg claims he can connect with voters in such places in a way that other Democrats — from coastal enclaves like, say, Vermont or California — simply can’t.
“The experience of somebody who comes from the American interior, from the kind of community where people grew up being told that success had to do with getting out … is an experience we need more of in our national leadership,” he says. “And especially in the Democratic Party, because losing touch with that kind of experience is something that’s really set us back as a party.”
This argument is particularly well suited to the Trump-era Democratic electorate.
Buttigieg is positioning himself as the opposite of Trump — a competent, qualified executive who knows how government works. But he’s also appealing to liberal America’s anxieties about winning over the white working class and rebuilding Hillary Clinton’s so-called “blue wall” in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, the states that were supposed to hold the presidency for Democrats but instead handed it to Trump.
The substance of Buttigieg’s case for himself depends on his actual tenure as South Bend mayor. To what extent was the mayor a competent executive in touch with Middle America?
Three political scientists in Indiana who study local politics and have followed Buttigieg’s career all said that, more or less, he was.
“My impression is that in South Bend, he has been quite a spectacular success,” Gerald Wright, the chair of Indiana University Bloomington’s political science department, told me.
When Buttigieg took office in January 2012, South Bend had been experiencing slow but steady population decline. For the past five years, there’s been small but noticeable population growth. On Buttigieg’s first day, unemployment in the South Bend metro area was at 10.2 percent — 1.6 points higher than the Indiana state average. As the end of 2018, it was essentially even with the statewide average (3.7 percent versus 3.5).
It’s hard to separate his performance from an improving national economy during the same time. Still, South Bend does decently well when compared exclusively to the performance of other post-industrial Midwest towns on metrics like jobs and population growth. And experts point to several Buttigieg policies in particular that improved the city’s economic performance in recent years.
Buttigieg turned Route 31, the big thoroughfare that ran through South Bend’s previously moribund downtown, from two different one-way lanes into a series of two-ways to encourage people to stop and spend. Roughly 1,000 people live in downtown South Bend today; that figure was “effectively zero when Buttigieg took office,” per the Indianapolis Star.
“[His policy was] slowing people down — they catch a better view of what is in the place, they maybe see a restaurant they’ve not seen before or a business they’ve not seen before. And that then causes them to engage,” says Andrew Downs, the director of Purdue University Fort Wayne’s center on Indiana politics.
Buttigieg wanted to move South Bend, the home of the University of Notre Dame, away from its industrial past and toward an economic model designed for an overall US economy centering on tech and jobs requiring more education. This kind of vision is often criticized for ignoring deeper structural inequalities: Development can often entrench inequality or price out poor and minority residents altogether.
And Buttigieg did come in for some criticism on that front, particularly during his push to demolish 1,000 unlivable and uninhabited homes as part of a broader development scheme. But what was striking, according to the experts, is how responsive he was to these concerns. Stacey Odom, a resident of the heavily black LaSalle Park neighborhood, heard that her area was being targeted for redevelopment. She asked him for help, including a $300,000 grant for home repairs for local residents. Buttigieg gave her $650,000.
South Bend still has a number of problems; the city’s eviction rate is high, in part due to tenant-unfriendly state laws. But Buttigieg’s story about his record — a competent executive in touch with his Midwestern residents — is echoed in expert assessments of his tenure.
“What’s interesting in talking to residents and even sometimes critics [of Buttigieg] is the extent to which they have indicated that the mayor has really worked hard to listen to people,” Elizabeth Bennion, a scholar of state politics at Indiana University South Bend, told me. “I would rate him very favorably.”
At the same time, though, the very nature of this record raises some questions about how well prepared Buttigieg really is for the presidency. It’s one thing to be a competent executive who has to make decisions about a single highway and personally address a constituent’s grievances; it’s another thing entirely to make decisions on behalf of the world’s largest economy and most powerful military.
Even if Buttigieg is as effective a mayor as local experts say he is, it’s not obvious that he has the kind of skill set that prepares him for the world’s biggest job. He’ll have to make the case that he isn’t just a good mayor; he’s so good that he deserves to make a leap to the country’s top job.
The challenges ahead for Buttigieg’s campaign
The extremely local nature of his past experience makes it seem very strange to mention Buttigieg in the same breath as major candidates like Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) or former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, let alone polling frontrunners Biden and Sanders. Sixty-two percent of Americans don’t know who he is, per the Economist/YouGov’s late March polling. Not even that many Indiana residents know a lot about him.
“He was the mayor of one of the largest cities in the state, and in spite of that — in spite of him doing a good job running that city — he was not well known even 90 minutes away in northeastern Indiana,” Downs says.
To actually win, Buttigieg will need to deal with this name recognition problem. He’ll need to do more than just capture the hearts of the relatively few Democrats who know and like him; he’ll need to become a household name in places with primary debate stages (which he’s already qualified for).
But the better Buttigieg is known, the more likely he is to attract criticism that could damage his chances.
“The candidate having a boomlet will typically draw more media scrutiny,” John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University, tells me. “Once candidates seem ‘serious’ enough to pay attention to, the news media examines their previous record and behavior on the campaign trail more carefully.”
The truth is that Buttigieg is still, at this point, severely undervetted. We don’t know what the investigative reporters and opposition researchers currently digging into his background and past statements are going to find. And there are already some obvious fault lines that could split Buttigieg’s support.
The first is identity. The current field of Democratic presidential candidates is the most diverse ever; the party took back the House of Representatives in November in a wave election propelled by candidates of color and women. In some ways, Buttigieg, a first-time national candidate who is trying to become the first openly gay president, fits that mold.
But he’s also a relatively inexperienced white man. For some critics, there’s something odd about someone like that becoming the breakout insurgent star of the Democratic field based on his perceived intelligence and policy chops. It feels a little like there’s a double standard at work given that Elizabeth Warren, who’s been far more specific on policies ranging from big tech to agriculture, has gotten much more unfavorable media coverage about her supposed lack of “likability.”
“I really like Pete Buttigieg. He is intelligent. He is decent. He is curious,” prominent feminist and New America fellow Jill Filipovic tweeted. “But when he says ‘I think that policy matters, I’m a policy guy,’ but all of his policies are basically Warren’s (except less specific and less progressive), I wonder why he’s not working for her.“
I asked Buttigieg about this line of critique. “If somebody is pointing out that there are advantages — many of them unfair — that go along with being male in our society and in our politics, then I completely agree,” he says.
But he went on to push back: “If somebody is saying that I should not compete because I’m a man, I don’t know what to say to that. And if somebody is saying that I had it easy, I would invite them to join the military and enter Indiana politics in 2010 as a gay person.”
A much harsher line of attack is already emerging from the socialist left. A widely shared March 29 article in the magazine Current Affairs, for example, purported to document “irrefutable evidence that no serious progressive should want Pete Buttigieg anywhere near national public office.”
The piece’s author, Current Affairs editor Nathan Robinson, proceeds with an extremely critical read of Buttigieg’s campaign book, Shortest Way Home, and a harsh-bordering-on-unfair review of his record in South Bend. Robinson concludes that he simply is not the kind of person the left can trust with power.
“Mayor Pete does not have an entirely different story than any other politician in our lifetime. He has the same story they all have,” Robinson writes. “No more Bright Young People with their beautiful families and flawless characters and elite educations and vacuous messages of uplift and togetherness. Give me fucked-up people with convictions and gusto. Give me real human beings, not CV-padding corporate zombies.”
Buttigieg doesn’t reciprocate this left antipathy. In our interview, he argued that the rise of a more unabashedly left-wing politics is good for America.
“We need to actually see the furthest boundaries of our idea space. If the debate is just between a center-left and a center-center-left, then we’re not really exploring all of the different possibilities right now,” he told me. “Most of the boldness in American politics in my lifetime has come only on the right, and it’s refreshing to see that change — even if some of what’s coming on the left leads to policies that I would approach differently.”
It’s very clear that Buttigieg doesn’t want to make Democratic enemies at this point in the race. But he’s in a competitive primary against some pretty popular and well-funded opponents. If Democratic voters continue to take him as seriously as they are right now, then he’ll inevitably start taking punches — and having to throw them. Whether that means he has a natural ceiling, or might even crash and burn in the way some surprise candidates do, remains to be seen.
So right now, Buttigieg is appealing to Democratic voters unsatisfied with the other choices. He speaks both to some voters’ desire for the opposite of Trump and to the Democratic base’s desire for an unapologetic champion who will go to bat against Republicans. That is enough to elevate him to serious candidate status; the only question now is how much further it can take him.