It would be fair to say that Pete Butttigieg is experiencing something of a moment. Again.
Earlier this year, he splashed down into America’s consiousness as the young, gay, veteran mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who wanted to be president and would definitely appear on your podcast or morning show. His press coverage was so ubiquitous that it merited a profile of the person arranging it, his communications director, Lis Smith, and helped get him a bump in the polls and fundraising. But the Democratic primary race got crowded and others had their moments, too. Buttigieg faded somewhat — he fell from an 8.4 percent peak in the Real Clear Politics national average and settled into the 4 to 6 percent range. He was a nice young man who always looked dressed for a wedding dance floor — suit pants, shirt and tie, but rarely a jacket — who would perhaps have his shot somewhere down the line, but not now.
That changed this fall. Buttigieg has surged back into the conversation about who the top tier of candidates really are. (He recently said he thought the race was getting down to a two-way one between himself and Sen. Elizabeth Warren.) That confidence — or overconfidence, depending on who you’re talking to — has to do in large part with his performance in Iowa polls and in the money race. The most recent Monmouth University poll of the state shows him leading the race at 22 percent. Buttigieg raised more money than Joe Biden, the leader in national polls, according to third-quarter fundraising reports, trailing only Sen. Bernie Sanders and Warren in the cash grab.
Which is why I found myself on a curb in Manchester, New Hampshire, on a recent morning, waiting for the Buttigieg campaign bus to arrive. When it pulled up in all its tricked-out Trailways glory, it was promptly loaded with the suitcases of a couple dozen journalists, who then headed into the Rex Theatre, where a moderate-sized crowd of New Englanders waited. The Veterans Day weekend bus tour junket had begun.
Inside, country music and Lizzo played while people milled about, dutifully sporting all manner of “Pete” gear. The campaign’s main colors are blue and gold, same as his hometown University of Notre Dame. But according to the campaign’s official “color story,” the gold is actually “Heartland Yellow” and there are all manner of blues, including one called “Calm Blue” that appears next to a picture of Buttigieg himself. The page notes, “Pete Buttigieg is unapologetically substantive yet salt-of-the-earth.” A more succinct rendering of the Buttigieg campaign ethos you could not find.
Many of the voters at the morning event were older and seemed interested in what they saw as Buttigieg’s potentially broad appeal. Janice Williamson, 67, of Wakefield, Massachusetts, and Diane Gaucher, “older than she is,” of Manchester, said they were Buttigieg-curious in large part because of his seeming strategic advantage in the race — his “electability,” to use the language of punditry.
“I feel he’s well positioned,” Gaucher said. “The country is ready for a more gentle approach.” Williamson said she liked Biden, but felt he was too old. As for Warren? “When I hear her talk, I want to slap her, even if I agree with her,” she said.
As voters have developed Goldilocks syndrome about the leading Democratic candidates — too old, too liberal, too … female? — Buttigieg has benefitted from the strong vanilla flavor of his political porridge. His stump speech is about “American values, correctly understood,” addresses “the crisis of belonging,” scolds the “cheap nationalism of hugging the flag” and encourages “Republicans of conscience” to come on into the Democratic Party.
Like Biden, Buttigieg is selling voters on a nostalgic return to some age of innocence and patriotism that existed before Trump. The next target is New Hampshire, where he’s mostly been trailing Biden, Warren and Sanders in polls. The Buttigieg team is betting that the momentum of good performances in these two early states will leapfrog their candidate into the broader Democratic primary voter consciousness — think California and other Super Tuesday states.
But while fundraising is healthy and Iowa and New Hampshire are filled with just his kind of voters — white and college educated — Buttigieg has struggled to build broader appeal among voters of color, a critical constituency in the party’s electorate. He’s down by double digits in recent polls of Nevada, a heavily Latino state, and is far behind the pack in South Carolina, a stronghold of critical black votes. He’ll need to capture their support or his moment could be fleeting.
The Buttigieg bus is a part of the same clever nostalgia play as his stump speech. The tour is a nod to John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express,” which barrelled through New Hampshire during the 2000 primary loaded with journalists and an off-the-cuff candidate. (Call Buttigieg’s version a “schtick” and you get a healthy eyeroll from his staff.) But Buttigieg isn’t exactly an off-the-cuff guy, and his maneuvering to the top of the heap has been deliberate, seizing on the weaknesses of the two frontrunners, Biden and Warren. His “Medicare for All Who Want It” plan — basically a public option with a heavy dose of “we won’t take away your private insurance and God-given freedom” rhetoric — is a savvy play to the center. It’s meant to grant safe harbor to Democrats who think Warren’s Medicare for All plan is too radical a move. (Warren and Buttigieg voters are white and college educated, though her supporters tend to be much more ideologically liberal than his.) Warren-interested voters might be attracted to his sheen of intellectualism (the foreign languages, Oxford, yada, yada, yada) and some of the policy reforms he’s suggested but rarely mentions on the stump these days, like getting rid of the Electoral College and changing the makeup of the Supreme Court.
He brought up these so-called “democracy reforms,” along with automation and K-12 education, when I asked him what he’d like the primary campaign to be about besides just health care reform, an issue that has far and away come to dominate the race. Still, he conceded the role he believes health care has played in his rise. “The value of the health care debate is it helps you see what it looks like to have a very progressive proposal that’s not as alienating or extreme as some of the alternatives. So to that extent, it helps me convey what we’re trying to do in this campaign.”
The campaign’s message of moderation is one that, theoretically, could speak to black voters just as well as it does to Buttigieg’s base of white ones. Black Democrats tend to identify as more moderate or conservative than white Democrats and so far in the primary, they’ve tended to lean toward Biden’s camp. And Buttigieg’s rise once again has brought a hefty dose of criticism that he can’t seem to appeal to voters of color.
When I asked what retail politics steps he was taking to appeal to black voters, Buttigieg brought up church visits — he thinks his faith is one central point of connection with black audiences — and an appeal to black sororities, which he called “a huge area of social capital.” But did he feel as if he was playing catch-up in forming relationships in the black community?
“We need to engage a lot of folks in ways that are beyond the kind of visible on the record kind of appearances,” he said. “I think that there’s a level of catch up really throughout the whole campaign, just because I don’t have years or decades of national exposure or Washington experience to lean on.” This lack of experience and his presumption to the office has grated on his rivals with longer resumes; several are quoted in a recent New York Times story with the headline, “Why Pete Buttigieg Annoys His Democratic Rivals.”
In the afternoon, the bus stopped in Stratham for a “barn party,” which was like a regular old voter town hall, except held in an uninsulated barn in 26-degree weather. The candidate entered cinematically through doors draped in American flags and wore only a short leather jacket slightly reminiscent of Obama’s post-presidency “cool dad” wardrobe. Buttigieg gave his speech and then it was time for questions. One woman, who was white — as was much of the crowd — stood up and expressed concern about Buttigieg’s lack of appeal to black voters. How would he improve the criminal justice system, she asked? “That’s the problem they have.”
Buttigieg gave an answer about racial inequalities that appear more broadly in American life and ended with what seemed like a gentle admonition about generalizations, “We’ve got to talk about this in majority white audiences too.”
The event ended and the press corps hustled onto the warm bus for another hour-long drive. Reporters asked about his experience level, impeachment, the fact that he resonates so much with Boomers — “I sometimes wonder what a 19-year-old me would have thought” — tax policy and health care. It was the third ride of the day, which meant it was the third time reporters had peppered Buttigieg with queries for an hour or so. At a certain point, even inquisitive journalists start to run out of earth-shattering questions. I asked what he was reading. A Roman history, a Seneca book — “it’s very quotable” he said of the stoic philosopher — and someone had given him James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” which he was rereading for the first time since college. “His account of whiteness was very timely,” Buttigieg said. Did he think a lot about whiteness on the campaign trail, I asked? Was he able to appeal to swing voters — likely more conservative — in part because he’s white (and they’re probably white too)?
“One thing I’ve found, definitely engaging with white law enforcement officers back home, is the struggle in terms of the readiness of a lot of white folks to engage issues of race can’t be overestimated,” he said. South Bend’s police department and Buttigieg himself have been under scrutiny since the summer, when a white officer shot and killed Eric Logan, a 54-year-old black man. During a town hall held after the shooting, residents were openly confrontational with Buttigieg about his failures. “The real problem I think is you’ve got people who have a self-conception such that they can be horrified by the implications that they are in any way biased or racist having therefore a very hard time confronting the fact that everyone has biases. And added to that the fact that everyone has a race, everyone’s implicated in a racialized reality. But a huge part of whiteness, at least in America, is being able to not have to think about race much.”
Implicitly, the conversation turned to interactions with voters, like the one in Stratham who’d made a comment about black Americans and “the problem they have” with the criminal justice system.
“Figuring out a way to call on white Americans to think about race, to be conscious of race without triggering the immediate kind of defensive mechanisms or going into this place of apology and guilt that also isn’t always productive, that’s really tough,” Buttigieg said. “It’s really tough for something as sensitive and risk averse as electoral politics to struggle with. But America has no better mechanism for handling any social challenge than the American presidential election. It is the place that brings everybody into one conversation.”
The bus was pulling up to the last event of the day, another town hall, this one much bigger than the morning’s. Reporters gathered their coats and recorders and Buttigieg retreated to a room at the back of the bus to prepare. My last glimpse of him was through a cracked door, watching a TV tuned to CNN as he tied his tie one last time for the day. It felt a little like watching someone put on their armor, and it made me think of a passage in Buttigieg’s stump speech when he asks the crowd to imagine the day after Trump is out of office.
“This country will need to be brought together,” he’d said that morning in Manchester. “It’s going to require a president, as I’m running to be, who can stand on the rubble of what has been busted in our society and in our politics.” The image made me pause — it was a bit apocalyptic. And what was Buttigieg supposed to be in it? A conquering hero? A savior?
Whatever he was, he was standing atop the rubble.