The Slatest

Remembering Pete Buttigieg, Slate Blogger

Pete Buttigieg stands on a stage holding a microphone, facing a crowd carrying signs saying his name.
Find this man a laptop! Win McNamee/Getty Images

At first glance, Pete Buttigieg has a standard political résumé for a major presidential candidate: failed state treasurer candidate, failed DNC chair candidate, former mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana. But there’s one other, forgotten element of Buttigieg’s resume that sets him apart from his competitors: Slate blogger.

The year was 2016. The Republican nominating calendar was coming to a head in early May, as Sen. Ted Cruz identified the critical May 3 Indiana primary as his last stand against the delegate leader, Donald Trump. Having lost faith in his existing team of politics writers, Slate’s then–politics editor Tommy Craggs sought to recruit a couple of Hoosiers to live-blog the primary. Slate knew someone who knew Buttigieg, who agreed to pitch in.

“Pete said sure, which was surprising at the time but maybe less so in retrospect,” Craggs, who is now the enterprise editor for Mother Jones, said in a recent email interview.

News outlets called the Republican primary for Trump the instant polls closed, though the Democratic primary between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton—who already had an insurmountable delegate lead nationally—would take some time to call.

Buttigieg was, in Craggs’ words, “an exceptional blogger. Copy was clean, smart, prolific, even sly.” While some live-bloggers just made jokes and posted tweets, nearly every Buttigieg entry was rich and edifying. This, as just one example, is a perfect live-blog entry:

But enough about the GOP for a while. I’m seeing interesting things on the blue map already. The county-by-county map of partial results for Indiana show an interesting pattern: Clinton is leading in almost every county that touches the Ohio river along the Kentucky border in the South, even as most other counties show a Sanders lead.

This takes me down memory lane to 2010, when I ran for State Treasurer against Richard Mourdock. I got clobbered. It was the watershed year of the Tea Party, and I didn’t even carry my own St. Joseph County. I did, however, win Perry County, home of Tell City, a (very) Southern river town where the pie is delicious (and pronounced “pah”). I doubt that I won this county because folks in Tell City were any more likely than the rest of the state to be impressed with my proposals on recalibrating the state’s bond investments, or even my enthusiastic pie-eating whenever I visited to campaign (though that can’t have hurt). Chances are I won because it was a county of loyal Democrats who have voted that way for generations.

There are fewer and fewer counties like this, especially Southern counties. I wonder if I could even carry Perry County today in a general election. But this tradition of loyalty may speak to why Clinton does better here among the Democrats who do remain. They stick with what they know, and perhaps they’re looking for a familiar and consistent leader, not a revolution. Or we could look at it generationally: these Southern counties skew demographically older, and age may now be the best predictor of whether a voter is going to break for Clinton or for Sanders.

Either way, much will depend on northwestern Lake County, on the other end of the state and in many respects the opposite of the “Kentuckiana” region—but this area has its own deep Democratic tradition, is also old-fashioned in some ways, and skews older than, say, Indianapolis. Certainly I could see the area’s frustrated working class responding to Sanders’ warnings of a rigged game, especially with everything that their economy has been through. But unlike a 2008 dynamic in which African American voters in Lake County nearly tipped the whole state for Obama, you could picture old-school (and comparatively older) Democrats delivering for Hillary this time around. With Lake County in the Central Time Zone and only reporting 1/3 of precincts, she is ahead there—but not by as much as Obama was in 2008.

You can see how Buttigieg won the JFK Library’s Profile in Courage essay contest in 2000, an essay to which he linked in his final entry of the evening. In that entry, following Sanders’ primary win, Buttigieg urged Democrats to unify.

Before signing off, I’m going to take off my dispassionate analyst hat (it was fun trying on for a couple hours) and speak as a Democrat committed to the values that hold my party together.

The Republicans are now officially in general election mode. They are closing ranks as we speak. And they are closing ranks behind an authoritarian the likes of which modern American politics has not seen.

I like Bernie. In fact, I liked him long before it was cool. He’s moved the debate in important ways, and is pointing to real problems in our political system.

But each passing day Democrats are divided will represent an advantage for Trump. And the GOP, against their preferences, their instincts, and even their values, will adjust their machine to do whatever they can to get him in, and keep Hillary Clinton out, of power.

There is now, officially, a non-trivial chance that an authoritarian entertainer will become the next president of the United States. For those of us who want a better future, it’s time to unite.

He was right! Donald Trump was elected president six months later.

Buttigieg, smitten with Slate, visited the offices on two separate occasions during trips east. During his second visit—and the record gets hazy here—some news related to Mike Pence had broken: either that he had endorsed Trump, after having endorsed Cruz in the primary, or that he was named Trump’s running mate*. Buttigieg, standing helplessly in a newsroom, was in the wrong place at the wrong time: He was asked to blog.

“Someone got him a computer,” Craggs recalls, “and Pete wrote a blog on the spot—I mean, who does that?—and then he filed the thing to me.” You will not, however, find Buttigieg’s piece in the Slate archives, because it never got published.

“It spent the next few days in my spam filter,” Craggs said. “The piece had reached its sell-by date by the time I found it. I still feel awful about that. He received no kill fee.”

The professional relationship was permanently severed.

A lot has changed since 2016. Buttigieg is no longer your friendly neighborhood guest live-blogging mayor, but he does have a realistic chance to win the Iowa caucuses on Monday night. In aligning himself toward the center in his bid for the nomination, Buttigieg has alienated once-allies in media like Craggs, who says that Buttigieg’s candidacy “has confirmed the maxim that the very best bloggers tend to be the most insufferable people.” One thing has remained constant, though, from the moment Buttigieg first arrived on Slate’s radar in 2016 to his star turn in this election cycle: Slate still hasn’t paid him.

Update, Feb. 3, 2020: This post originally said Mike Pence may have been “named vice president” when Pete Buttigieg was visiting Slate; Pence may have been named Trump’s running mate at the time.