South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is on a trajectory that few people would have imagined when he formed his presidential exploratory committee. His poise and thoughtfulness have produced accolades on Twitter and cable TV that must make him blush at times. But his performance has made him the surprise factor in the Democratic nomination race.
What happens as the campaign moves ahead is the interesting question. History is an uncertain guide but still worth examining as Buttigieg tries to capitalize on the attention he has gotten. Is he a genuine breakthrough candidate whose rise to prominence shatters both barriers and expectations? Or is he like some candidates of the past who found a following within a segment of their party’s electorate — or the attention of the media — but could not move beyond it?
Several past candidates come to mind in trying to assess the Buttigieg phenomenon. One is Barack Obama. Another is former senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey. A third is former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt. All had their moments. All were the subject of favorable and sometimes gushing media coverage. Only Obama went on to become both his party’s nominee and president of the United States.
Obama is the candidate anyone like Buttigieg would like to become: a history-maker, an outsider who shook the system, a political meteor who flashed across the nation’s screens but didn’t burn out. Obama’s 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention turned him into an overnight political celebrity. By the time he announced his candidacy for president more than two years later (and after election to the U.S. Senate), he was already destined to become the most serious challenger to Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic nomination.
Buttigieg’s rise has been far more condensed — and limited. The Indiana Democrat formed his exploratory committee in January, released an autobiography in February and drew minimal attention. He broke through in March during a CNN town hall in Austin, where his calm and steady presence, and a slashing sound bite aimed at Vice President Pence as a “cheerleader for the porn-star presidency,” blew up Twitter and began what has been a flood of favorable media attention.
Buttigieg, aided by communications director Lis Smith, has adopted the approach that Donald Trump followed early in his 2016 campaign to the presidency, which is to make himself available to every news organization and every reporter that wants him. In an era when campaigns are shaped by national conversations, maximizing these opportunities is critically important. Buttigieg is aware that one favorable interview leads to another and that one favorable story leads to another. As long as he stays steady on his feet, attention ripples ever wider.
But he is not yet where Obama was at this point in 2007. He is rising in the polls, but he is not the alternative to the Democratic front-runner. It’s true that Obama also had to contend in Iowa with former senator John Edwards as well as Clinton, but his fundraising and celebrity appeal put him in a different category than Edwards, as later events showed.
This year, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former vice president Joe Biden occupy considerable space in the Democratic field, and other Democratic candidates have obvious potential and constituency appeal. As fluid as the race might be, Buttigieg, though a more consistent performer than Obama was at this point 12 years ago, has a long climb ahead before he is in the Obama category, if ever.
What seems unlikely is that he will become the Babbitt of 2020. Babbitt was an effective governor of Arizona, one of the leading lights in a crop of Democratic governors who presided over western states in the 1980s. Witty, thoughtful, innovative, surrounded by a team of savvy advisers, he attracted the attention of reporters by sheer force of intellect, the provocative nature of his ideas and an approachable personality.
He did not run for president at a time when cable TV news and the Internet were factors. He had to break through the old way, by surprising people in the Iowa caucuses. Mike McCurry, a Clinton White House press secretary who worked for Babbitt in 1988, remembers how the hill turned out to be too high for his candidate to climb. In the end, he wrote in an email, Iowa caucus-goers wanted a winner.
Democratic voters “read a lot about Babbitt being a good, decent, smart guy, but almost every story carried a caveat that he was probably too good to get the nomination and saying things (‘reform entitlements, raise taxes with a national consumption tax’) that most political people thought to be impolitic,” McCurry wrote. “And so we won a ‘media primary’ for telling the truth about national politics, but almost every story said Babbitt was saying things that would be political anathema in a general election.”
There is a lesson there for all the candidates, not just Buttigieg.
Bradley ran against then-Vice President Al Gore in 2000, with Gore the heavy favorite. Aided by his personal story (pro basketball star and his tenure in the Senate), his intellect and a reformer’s bent, Bradley moved up in the polls in New Hampshire enough to give Gore a scare. Then the vice president and his team went after him, and Bradley never won a single primary or caucus.
Steve Kornacki of MSNBC was one of the first to make the Buttigieg-Bradley comparison, and at this point it seems the most applicable. The reason is the apparent similarity of their constituencies. Bradley was well liked by white, liberal, reform-minded, well-educated, affluent Democrats. He attracted the kind of coalition that has given other Democratic candidates a boost, candidates such as Gary Hart in 1984 and Paul Tsongas in 1992.
What ultimately stopped Bradley was his inability to expand beyond that liberal, upscale, educated, mostly white coalition. The same was true of Hart and Tsongas. In Bradley’s case, he was the alternative to Gore almost from the start of the Democratic nomination campaign. Hart and Tsongas emerged from more crowded fields to become the alternative to the Democratic front-runner. Buttigieg has a long way to go even to get to that position.
In the past, the key to winning the Democratic nomination was to capture a majority of the African American vote and combine that with a strong appeal to the white, working-class voters who participate in the primaries. Obama was something of an outlier, combining parts of the Bradley-Hart constituency with solid support among African Americans (but only after winning the caucuses in mostly white Iowa). He did not do well in the primaries among white working-class voters.
The Democratic coalition has changed since 2008, so the party Buttigieg seeks to lead is of a different mix. Women, especially those with college degrees, play a more significant role. Younger voters, those of Buttigieg’s generation (he is 37) and younger, could have a bigger influence, though they are not certain primary or caucus voters. As an openly gay candidate, Buttigieg also will have appeal to the LGBTQ community that is a more important force in Democratic politics.
Perhaps that gives him opportunities to put together a winning coalition that Bradley or other candidates with similar followings did not have 20 or more years ago. But one way or the other, he will need greater and broader support, especially in the black community. In a crowded and diverse field of candidates, that challenge could be significant. Buttigieg’s opening act has given him early opportunities. What he does with them will be more telling.