On paper, Pete Buttigieg doesn’t seem like a high-profile presidential candidate. But somehow, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., has become a serious political force.
An April Monmouth University poll of likely Iowa Democratic caucus attendees found Buttigieg in third place behind some of the biggest names in Democratic politics: former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Even when you factor in the poll’s margin of error, he is at least running even with sitting senators.
An April St. Anselm poll of Democratic voters in another crucial early-voting state, New Hampshire, found Buttigieg in third place as well. And The Fix’s Aaron Blake pointed out that Buttigieg outraised four sitting senators in the first three months of this year, even as he spent less than his competitors to get his name out there.
Before we go any further, it’s worth noting it’s still very early in the campaign. “I can’t tell if he’s the latest flavor of the month or the week or he’s got staying power,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist. “I honestly think it remains to be seen whether he goes the distance or not.” He also has some liabilities that could trip him up. As Democratic strategist David Axelrod pointed out, Buttigieg’s hardcore supporters appear almost entirely white. (He has also faced criticism for his demotion of South Bend’s first black police chief, reports The Post’s Robert Costa.)
But even so, the passion for “Mayor Pete” — and the speed at which it developed — is notable. How is he doing it?
It’s probably a fool’s errand to try to pin down what, exactly, is making Buttigieg so popular. But here are some theories, partly informed by dozens of emails from readers of The 5-Minute Fix newsletter, about why this mayor of a town most of his supporters have probably never been to is exciting so many people.
1. Buttigieg is a novelty for Democrats. There are four senators from the Northeast running for president. By contrast, Buttigieg is from the Midwest, he’s a veteran who served in Afghanistan, and he unapologetically talks about his Christian faith in a way that helps voters feel like the Republican Party is not the only one with a claim to talk about faith.
2. There are aspects of his profile that excite more liberal members of the party. Like the fact he’s 37 and openly gay. (He came out as gay while mayor.) If he were to win, he would be both the first openly gay president and the youngest president ever. “[A]s a millennial myself, this means a great deal to me,” Joe Perin, a 25-year-old Indianapolis resident, said of Buttigieg’s age in an email to The Fix. “We have, until this point, been completely subject to the actions and decisions of older generations.”
3. The Democratic Party has been without a clear leader since President Trump won. So why not look to someone outside Washington?
4. Buttigieg is a candidate some Democrats could see taking on Trump successfully. Talk to any Democratic voter, and they’ll tell you they want, above all else, a candidate to defeat Trump. Buttigieg seems to fit the ideal profile for some Democrats for a few reasons. His policies are still in broad outlines, but he appears to have a more centrist economic worldview than Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who some Democrats worry might turn off swing voters. He’s won two elections in Indiana by wide margins, which suggests he knows how to speak to people outside the liberal bubble.
“He seems pretty unflappable,” Pamela from California said in an email to The Fix. “He seems to be the type who can let it slide off and not engage.”
And Buttigieg is a white man. There is evidence that some Democratic voters are, fairly or not, skittish of electing another woman to run against Trump after Hillary Clinton lost to him.
5. Voters say he’s got the intangibles. Why does Buttigieg appear more popular right now than another young hotshot politician running for president, former congressman Beto O’Rourke? Voters who shared their thoughts with The Fix said Buttigieg has a calm personality, an ease on the biggest stage possible and a direct, eloquent way of speaking that has earned him comparisons to a young Barack Obama.
That’s what Carolyn Engelhard, a professor at the University of Virginia, likes about him. “At the most basic human level, I just want to believe in something good, I want to revel in the promise of the next generation, and I want a leader who believes in compassionate caring for those less fortunate,” she wrote to The Fix. “Obama campaigned on hope, and Trump campaigned on fear. I think Mayor Pete may campaign on ‘care.’ ”
This is all a snapshot in time. There’s a long campaign ahead, and Buttigieg is untested at the highest level of politics. But how he handles those tests is worth watching given how well received the early days of his campaign have been.