The unlikely rise of 2020 Democratic primary contender Pete Buttigieg

The young mayor of South Bend, Indiana, would be America’s first openly gay president, and its youngest ever. 

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The 2020 Democratic primary field is already crowded with big names. It is mostly dominated by senators, who come with huge national profiles: Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker.

But among those, even ahead of some of them, an unlikely figure stands out: Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Sure, California senator Kamala Harris’ fundraising numbers are better. Sure, Bernie Sanders is ahead in the polls. But Buttigieg is having something of a moment.

A Sanders fan might argue that the media is giving Buttigieg outsized coverage considering his relative position in the polls, and perhaps they are – but politics is about the narrative, and he has that in spades right now. For many, Buttigieg (pronounced “boot-edge-edge”) seems like someone who could embody the perfect antidote to the Trump era. He just seems so gosh-darned Midwest wholesome. He is the Marie Kondo candidate: he sparks joy.

Certainly, he seems to be breaking through. A Quinnipiac poll in March showed four per cent of Democratic primary voters saying they would pick him, up from just one per cent in previous polls. That placed him, stunningly, in joint fifth place, alongside Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren – long thought of as one of the primary’s major contenders. (Former Vice-President Joe Biden, who has not yet formally announced his campaign, topped the poll, with Sanders in second place.) Among those who described themselves as “very liberal,” Buttsigieg’s support was nine per cent.

If elected in 2020, Buttigieg would be both America’s first openly gay president and the youngest person ever to occupy the Oval Office. A Rhodes scholar and Naval intelligence lieutenant who served a seven month tour of duty in Afghanistan, Buttigieg was elected as mayor of South Bend when he was just 29. He is an accomplished musician (he played as a guest piano soloist with the South Bend Symphony Orchestra in 2013) and a polyglot who speaks eight languages including Arabic, French, Maltese, and Dari. In March, when he encountered a journalist from Oslo after a campaign rally, Buttigieg – to her astonishment – responded to her questions in fluent Norwegian. In April, he pulled the same trick with an Italian reporter.

Videos of such encounters – and others, such as when he officiated an impromptu wedding for a young couple just before the birth of their child in April – have helped propel him to viral fame. That higher profile, in turn, has led to some staggering fundraising numbers. In April, he announced his campaign had raised $7m in the first quarter of 2019 – not as much as some of his more famous opponents (Sanders raised $18m in the same time period), but still an astonishing haul for a little-known small-town mayor who had practically zero national profile as recently as 2016.

He may still lag behind the bigger names in the polling of intended primary votes, but that could change fast as more people hear his message. The needle is already moving: Buttigieg’s favourability jumped eleven percentage points in the first two months of 2019, according to polling firm Morning Consult – by far the biggest positive movement made by any contender in the primary race.

He’s making waves in liberal establishment circles, too. Buttigieg first came to national attention in 2017, when he ran to be chair of the Democratic National Committee. Though that campaign ultimately failed, his message – that the party needed reform to empower its millennial members – resonated with a lot of people, and brought him to national attention. Vox’s Ezra Klein, a reliable liberal establishment bellwether, wrote in April that he was impressed not just by Buttigieg’s sheer intellectual firepower but also by the fact that the young mayor “has a coherent theory of what’s gone wrong in American politics, and what’s required to fix it”.

Buttigieg’s meteoric rise, as well the elegance and empathy that seems to radiate from him like heat, lending viral power to all his public appearances, invites comparison with a young Barack Obama. “At a time when people are aching for hope and a path forward that we can all walk, [Buttigieg] is a relentlessly positive person,” Obama’s former chief strategist David Axelrod told the New Yorker admiringly in February.

The first primary votes won’t be cast for almost another year yet – an aeon, in political time – so this momentum matters. More: candidates who start out the favourite, like Sanders, Biden, and Warren, have far more to lose, and starting near the front of the pack means they have a target painted on their back. Warren has already been bruised by the storm-in-a-teacup President Trump and Fox News have whipped up over allegations that she claimed Native American heritage on a university grant form. Biden – a habitual giver of sometimes unsolicited hugs – was forced to say in a statement in April that he would “be more mindful of personal space.” Booker is being scrutinised for his closeness to Wall Street; Harris for her prosecutorial record.

If his meteoric rise continues, Buttigieg can expect greater scrutiny to come along with it, and how he defines himself in the public eye will determine if he is just a flash-in-the-pan or a serious contender for the presidency. But right now, the kind of focused attacks from Republicans that have already turned Warren’s campaign into a rearguard action and now threaten Biden aren’t something Buttigieg, in the enviable position of upstart outside-shot candidate, needs to worry about much. For the moment, for him, the only way is up.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.