South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg on his way to a fundraiser in West Hollywood in March. A small-town mayor might not have gotten much buzz in past elections. (Allison Zaucha/For The Washington Post)
Tracy Sefl is a Democratic communications consultant based in Chicago. She is not yet supporting any candidate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., runs a town of about 100,000 where the local newspaper’s front page recently contained stories about an annual “helicopter Easter egg drop,” a community forum on opioid dependence and a boutique bakery moving into a new storefront.

And he’s also on the cover of the latest Time magazine, posing with his husband, as the breakout star in the current field of Democratic presidential candidates.

With President Trump in the White House, it’s not so surprising that other “unlikely” candidates would emerge; Buttigieg is polling third in Iowa and doing well nationally in a crowded field. He has pulled in more than $7 million in his first few months campaigning. Just a few years ago, the viability of Trump’s candidacy seemed as unlikely as a small-town Indiana mayor’s: He didn’t sound or act like the type of candidate America recognized, and Trump’s main previous experience in politics, besides donating to Democrats, was kibitzing on Twitter and pushing birther conspiracy theories. 

The very concept of experience seems to be falling out of favor. What was once the central rationale of a successful candidate has been successfully weaponized against politicians. Buttigieg’s ascent helps illustrate this; he’s succeeding in part because  he lacks a traditional résumé — which means he doesn’t have to explain away previous votes or positions the way some of his more conventional rivals are already under pressure to do.

Traditional political experience is something firm that voters and reporters and opposition researchers can grab onto. It’s a way candidacies can be categorized and analyzed. You can look up voting records. You can dissect old speeches, parse old campaign advertising. You can talk to legislative peers and campaign opponents. You can fall down a C-Span rabbit hole.

Well before Joe Biden announced his candidacy last month, votes he cast across four decades in the Senate were already under scrutiny: He supported the 1994 crime bill, which led to the modern era of mass incarceration. He was pro-NAFTA. He voted to authorize the Iraq War . His votes against busing in the 1970s and 1980s are at odds with today’s Democratic Party. And his treatment of Anita Hill from the Senate Judiciary Committee dais is one of the most frequently criticized parts of his résumé in the #MeToo era. That’s been compounded recently as women have publicly discussed feeling uncomfortable with his close-talking, physically affectionate interpersonal style.

Presidential candidates who are sitting senators, like Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Cory Booker (N.J.) and Kamala Harris (Calif.), are under the microscope, too. For instance, commentators and activists cite Gillibrand’s and Booker’s “ties to Wall Street.” Gillibrand also faces questions about whether she overreacted to allegations of sexual misconduct by then-Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and whether her record as a House member for her Upstate New York district was too conservative. Harris served as a prosecutor and California attorney general, and seemingly from the moment she was sworn in to the Senate, journalists and analysts have pointed to the mismatch between her record from those years and the party’s stance on criminal justice reform today as a liability for a potential presidential run. 

Those same senators are also lauded by commentators for their accomplishments in that legislative body — Gillibrand for fighting against sexual assault in the military, Booker for a sharp focus on policy solutions to racial inequalities, Harris for her questioning of witnesses before the Judiciary Committee (turning a Biden criticism on its head). But the vulnerabilities in their records come up constantly in media coverage and at campaign appearances in early primary states.

Some of these trends were apparent more than 10 years ago: The Iraq War vote hurt Hillary Clinton, too, although more in her 2008 run than in 2016. But in both of her campaigns, Clinton tried to sell her long résumé, particularly as a senator and secretary of state, as a general foundation for her candidacy — only to see it become a very specific source of attacks by her opponents. Her paper trail of votes, writings and speeches was endlessly mined (and distorted).

Experience in politics might be thought of as vines of ivy, slowly climbing and covering a wall until the wall is no longer visible. The more traditional, familiar experience, the thicker the ivy, defining the candidate. The less traditional experience, the more sparse the ivy, and the less there is for political researchers to grab hold of — and the more the personality and humanness of the candidate shine through.

Bernie Sanders’s campaign recognized this out of the gate this time. When he launched his 2020 bid, he focused on the college-activist chapter of his biography, a human element the campaign acknowledges is less well-known. And Biden’s team has handled persistent criticism about his physicality by emphasizing that he is a compassionate, empathic man — it’s just his personality. 

Without a long paper trail, candidates have an opportunity to define themselves, to create and embrace a persona.  Younger politicians, especially, can run on who they are instead of what they’ve done. I hear friends explaining their approval of a candidate with reasons like, “I love his energy” or “She questioned Brett Kavanaugh like a boss.” 

For aides to rivals of these nontraditional candidates, political research requires elasticity in methods. If there are no Senate votes to analyze, there may be dozens of hours of local television news reports or an entire history of a Twitter account (and perhaps a spouse’s). 

But lack of experience seems to be an asset for only one type of candidate: male ones. Because we largely continue to judge women by their accomplishments and men by their potential, Buttigieg is the one landing on magazine covers. Before him, it was Beto O’Rourke, the three-term Texas congressman with little in the way of a concrete legislative legacy to point to, who now spends his time parkouring across diner countertops and posing for Annie Leibovitz in dad denims. Meanwhile, Marianne Williamson has sold millions of books and appeared on television sets in millions of homes, but her nontraditional background as a self-help guru turned presidential candidate is not proving useful.

A great many voters say they ultimately choose a candidate simply because of how that politician makes them feel. But those feelings are created and cultivated through nano-news cycles, relentless even in this early phase of the race. And in those nano-cycles, where little micro-moments and tweets drive mainstream news coverage, the traditional candidates risk losing out. Nontraditional contenders have more of an opportunity to introduce themselves. Experienced politicians pull out a hard-copy résumé while the novices simply say, “Nice to meet you.” 

Was the extremely nontraditional candidacy of Donald Trump an outlier? Now, seeing how the Trump presidency has affected the country, will voters gravitate to the familiarity of a traditional path to office? In 2016, Americans elected a persona to the presidency. They could do so again. For several Democratic contenders, their personae are only just beginning to be known.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated Sen. Kamala Harris’s career as a prosecutor. Harris was a county prosecutor and the district attorney of San Francisco before becoming California attorney general; she did not serve as a federal prosecutor.

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