The Slatest

“Mayor Pete” Buttigieg Is Having a Moment in the 2020 Primary. Here’s Why!

Buttigieg, wearing a white shirt and blue tie, laughs as Cox speaks on stage against a blue background.
Journalist Ana Marie Cox and Pete Buttigieg at the SXSW conference in Austin on March 8.
Photo by Hutton Supancic/Getty Images for SXSW

We are experiencing a Mayor Pete boomlet. Mayor-mentum! The Pete-related enthusiasm exploded on Sunday night, when the 37-year-old South Bend, Indiana, mayor and long-shot presidential contender—whose actual name is Pete Buttigieg—appeared on an hourlong CNN town hall.

His performance got rave reviews from Democratic Party big shots. David Axelrod, a former Obama adviser who’s been a Buttigieg enthusiast for a few years, tweeted that he’d “rarely seen a candidate make better use” of the town hall format; party operative Patti Solis Doyle wrote that Buttigieg “kicked ass.” Both Solis Doyle and Axelrod are CNN contributors, for what it’s worth, but they weren’t the only ones praising the mayor: A Politico reporter all the way out in California noted that some of her sources had been so impressed that they donated to the young Midwesterner’s campaign, and in total he raised $600,000 from more than 22,000 donors after the CNN broadcast. That’s not Bernie Sanders or Kamala Harris money, but it’s quite good for a young, small-city mayor who just a few years ago was live-blogging for Slate.

What made the town hall performance so great? Well, Buttigieg gave direct, coherent answers about subjects that Democratic primary voters care about. I know you’re like: Duh! That’s what everyone tries to do in such a format! You moron! But it’s easier said than done, requiring the candidate to repeatedly interact with audience members without coming off as either aloof or pandering, then to give responses that address specific questions in detail but also speak to larger campaign themes, all within the context of a made-for-TV event involving multiple cameras, frequent commercial breaks, and a moderator who’s ready to jump in at any moment. It’s like getting called on in class, except the teacher can ask you about any subject, it goes on for an hour, and hundreds of thousands of people are watching, many of whom are itching for the chance to say you (or CNN) sucked.

For an instructive comparison, watch the way Buttigieg handles the very first audience question—“As someone who’s never held statewide office or even represented a population the size of a congressional district, what makes you feel you’re qualified to be president?”—and then watch fellow candidate Harris respond to a similarly pointed query, in a CNN town hall setting, about her complicated history of positions on the death penalty. Buttigieg:

Harris:

Harris, 54, is an experienced politician who certainly knew when she entered the primary that she’d be criticized by some progressives for her record as a prosecutor and attorney general. Her response, though—that she’s “personally opposed” to capital punishment because it’s “applied unequally”—seems likely to inspire even more critical questions down the line given that her office actually defended California’s death penalty in court when she was attorney general. (It even argued specifically that there is no evidence that the penalty was applied within the state in an “arbitrary or random” way.) The rest of her answer meanders to a vague gotta-hear-both-sides conclusion about the broader subject of criminal justice reform:

It is a flawed system, deeply flawed, and we have got to reform it, and everyone has to be onboard. And we can’t accept false choices, because I think we all realize it’s a deeply flawed system, but we also want to make sure that when a woman is raped, a child is molested, one human being is killed by another human being, we also want to make sure there’s going to be consequence and serious consequence for those crimes.

By contrast, Buttigieg hits the question head-on and turns it toward a discussion of an ongoing political problem (government shutdowns) that doubles as a concise pitch for why he’d be a better leader than the current president:

I know that it’s more traditional to maybe come from Congress, to have a background in Washington, but I would also argue that we would be well served if Washington started to look more like our best-run cities and towns rather than the other way around. Think about it. One thing you’ve never heard of is a city shutting down because they couldn’t agree on a policy. Right? It’s literally unthinkable. We would never do it. We couldn’t do it, because we deliver water, and you need water to live. So we just figure things out. And that’s the kind of attitude that I think we need more of in Washington today. 

I get that it might sound a little cheeky as the youngest guy in this conversation, but I actually think experience is one of the best reasons for somebody like me to be in this. I have more years of government experience under my belt than the president. [Laughter] That’s a low bar, I know that. I’ve also got more years of executive government experience under my belt than the vice president and more military experience than anybody to walk into that office on day one since George H.W. Bush. So I get that I’m the young guy in the conversation, but I would say experience is what qualifies me to have a seat at this table. 

If you watch some of his prior speeches, you can see that Buttigieg has been honing the riffs he used on CNN for some time, right down to the self-deprecating “back home, they just call me Mayor Pete” line about his unusual last name (it’s Maltese) that he opened the broadcast with. (It’s a bit that I am legally obligated to compare to Barack Obama’s description of himself as a “skinny kid with a funny name” at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Obama praised Buttigieg in a 2016 New Yorker interview and has reportedly spoken to him about his nascent campaign.) Buttigieg’s signature outfit is a white shirt and solid-color tie with no jacket, a classic male political look that signifies that the person wearing it is ready to “roll up his sleeves” and “get his hands dirty” solving problems. (It matches up well with Buttigieg’s ability to speak extemporaneously about gritty municipal issues like sewer management.)

He’s got his own kind of ready-for-the-big-time polish, calm but sharp in a way that, again—sorry—calls to mind Obama. But at the same time he can credibly point out (as he did later in the hour on CNN) that he actually lives the same middle-class lifestyle, and has the same day-to-day practical middle-class concerns, as most voters. (At one point, discussing the inefficiency of American health care, he mentioned the annoyance of filling out redundant authorization forms by hand at doctor’s appointments. You tell ‘em, Pete!)

It’s a good combination, and it worked on Sunday night. The necessary caveat: While Buttigieg demonstrated an impressive familiarity with subjects ranging from data privacy to climate change—and an ability to connect them to daily problems—he hasn’t yet settled on the kind of detailed positions and plans that might induce questions as tricky as the one Harris faced about the death penalty. (Notable exceptions include health care, on which he says he would advocate for introducing a Medicare-style public option on existing Obamacare exchanges, and his Overton window–shifting endorsements of Supreme Court expansion and the abolition of the Electoral College.) And given how many other candidates are in the race who have their own considerable strengths and campaign treasuries, it would be irresponsible to say that Buttigieg is anything but a long shot to win the nomination. But it does seem safe to say that going forward he’s probably more likely to appear in Slate as a subject of national interest than as a contributor.