Peter Buttigieg. Only weeks ago, that name likely meant nothing to you. When he announced that he was exploring a potential run for president on January 23, South Bend, Indiana’s “Mayor Pete” made a tiny splash in an already frothing sea of candidates. It was a novelty, really — a 37-year-old mayor of a Midwestern city with a population just above 100,000 residents, announcing that he wanted to govern the entire country. The narrative, whenever he did get any national attention, was along the lines of, how quaint!
Suddenly, the tides are starting to shift. After an impressive showing at CNN’s SXSW town hall, Buttigieg is being taken seriously. His watershed moment occurred at that very event — when he was asked about Vice President Mike Pence, with whom he worked closely when Pence was still Governor of Indiana.
“How could he allow himself to become the cheerleader of the porn star presidency?” he asked of the famously conservative Christian politician. “Is it that he stopped believing in scripture when he started believing in Donald Trump? I don’t know. I don’t know.”
That was such a huge moment that, per an Emerson poll, he went from next to zero name recognition to polling third place, just behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, in Iowa. He even hit 65,000 donors as of Saturday, March 16, which means he officially qualifies for the threshold to be invited to participate in the first Democratic primary debate.
Anecdotes about Mayor Pete are proliferating on Twitter, and journalists and pundits alike are suddenly excited about the 37-year-old dark horse from Indiana. But that doesn’t change the fact that he came from seemingly nowhere. So: who is Peter Buttigieg, and does he actually have a shot at the presidency?
Who is Mayor Pete?
First things first. The name. Buttigieg. It’s Maltese, and it’s pronounced. “boo-tij-edge.” Here are some alternative phonetics, courtesy of Buttigieg’s husband Chasten, in case our spelling doesn’t help.
But residents of South Bend, Indiana, where he was first elected Mayor in 2011, at the age of 29, just call him Mayor Pete. He’s a Harvard graduate, a Rhodes scholar, and proficient or fluent in at least seven languages: English, Maltese, Norwegian, Arabic, French, Spanish, Italian, and Dari. He is also, according to husband Chasten and Pottermore, a Hufflepuff. Further, he is deeply religious. When discussing Pence at that same CNN town hall that rocketed him into the spotlight, he said, “[Pence’s] interpretation of scripture is pretty different than mine to begin with,” he said. “My understanding of scripture is that it’s about protecting the stranger and the prisoner and the poor person and that idea. That’s what I get in the gospel when I’m at church and his has a lot more to do with sexuality…and a certain view of rectitude.”
Of the fact that he can speak Norwegian, Buttigieg reportedly taught himself the Nordic language so he could read the works of Erlend Loe, who only had one book — Naïve. Super — available in English.
And as for the fact that he speaks Arabic? Yet another Twitter anecdote has surfaced. This one is particularly heart-warming:
Aside from being the youngest mayor of a town of over 100,000 residents in American history, Buttigieg is also a war vet. In 2014, he served in Afghanistan—while still performing his duties as Mayor. In fact, of his unique experience—the youngest candidate, a Mayor in a sea of Senators, a polyglot—he told Cleveland.com, “I know that I have the Maltese-American gay millennial war veteran mayor lane all to myself. But even there – right? – the senator lane is crowded. I may not be the only mayor, if I get in, to be in the picture. There’s different generational candidates. There’s a left lane that’s got a lot of folks in it.”
What he has accomplished as mayor.
Before Buttigieg became Mayor of South Bend, it was named one of America’s dying cities by Time. But thanks to several urban development initiatives, Buttigieg is leading what he calls a “turnaround town.” Per the Indianapolis Star: “[He] took on the resulting blight by demolishing a rash of vacant homes, left abandoned in neighborhoods throughout the city. Then, he spent tens of millions of dollars to spark a rebirth in what had been a dying downtown. Now, unemployment is down and the city’s population is slowly rising after decades of decline.”
What he wants to do as president.
In a long and varied interview with Ryan Lizza for Esquire, Buttigieg waxed poetic about everything from his platform to the Constitution and gave us a good look at what President Buttigieg would be like.
First and foremost, he wouldn’t be afraid to dig in and tackle serious change. In fact, he told Lizza that he wants to get back to a place where people are comfortable with changing the Constitution again. That, he says, is the only way to have a healthy democracy: “[N]ow we’ve become accustomed to tinkering but just one political lifetime ago, we knew that part of shoring up our democracy was tuning up our Constitution with amendments.”
Perhaps most relevant to Millennial and Gen Z voters: he supports a Green New Deal. Though in its current state, it is, according to the mayor, a “set of goals, not a fully articulated plan” he is fine with the concept. “Fundamentally,” he says, “I think it’s a sound framework, and it creates the right sense of urgency in that we can kind of luxuriate in a debate over what the right gear might be to do carbon targets, but scientifically the right time to do it was yesterday.”
If the fact that he understands the current zeitgeist hasn’t fully sunk in, there’s more: He supports Medicare-for-All, which 69 percent (nice) of Millennials support. He told Lizza, “I think any politician who lets the phrase ‘Medicare for All’ escape their lips also has to have some account of how you get from point A to point B. And to me the public option is the way to do it. I’ve been calling it ‘Medicare for all who want it.’ … Then this should prove to be a very natural glide path to single payer as more and more people buy in.”
He’s rising in popularity because of his candor and his experience—as a millennial, a gay man, a veteran, and a Midwesterner.
Straight from the horse’s mouth—that might be what’s so refreshing about Buttigieg, and why people are responding so positively to him. Instead of digging through twisty sound bytes purposefully engineered to take the middle of the road and trying to divine what on earth he actually thinks, Buttigieg just tells his audience. There’s no hedging, but there is nuance—an essential difference. Because life does have gray areas, which he acknowledges, but in reading his interviews, you can tell that he thinks about the way the world works and what he would do, genuinely and truly do, were he the next President of the United States.
Not only is Buttigieg candid, he is almost effortlessly tapping into the political moment without pandering. Because he himself is a young voter (and a veteran, a Midwesterner, and a gay man) he understands what voters in multiple blocs want. He especially understands that, particularly for younger voters, the current system is not working at all. He told Cleveland.com, “We’re at this moment that I think is more than just an election. It’s a realignment in American politics.”
He later echoed this sentiment in a sit-down interview with PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff when he said:
Well, I believe we’re in a moment that calls for something completely new. And, among other things, I think it calls for voices from the Industrial Midwest, a place that, in particular my party, to its detriment, largely ignored in past election cycles. I think it also calls for somebody from a newer generation.
You know, as a millennial — I’m just old enough or young enough to qualify as an older millennial — I’m from the generation that, for one thing, grew up experiencing school shootings as the norm. I was in high school when Columbine happened.
We are the generation that’s going to be on the business end of climate change, that’s going to have to pick up the pieces of the fiscal mess that will be made by current tax policy. And, economically, we could be the first generation in American history to make less than our parents if nothing is done.
When Lizza asked him about capitalism versus socialism, he explained that, despite the Cold War-era narrative, the two systems are not diametrically opposed. “I believe in capitalism as long as there’s a strong rule of law around it. […] The big question is what you prioritize, and I prioritize democracy. People are trying to make sense of the distance between socialism in Canada, say, and Denmark versus Venezuela. And the answer is democracy.”
And when asked about the Bill Clinton Democratic centrism of the 90s and 2000s, Buttigieg said that he was turned off by that kind of politics. “Yeah, I definitely grew up in a family that was skeptical of that. There was progress overall in the economy, but I think that period also laid the groundwork for where we are now, where we’ve gotten tremendous growth in the economy and tremendous growth in economic inequality.”
Neither of these answers should come as a shock if you know anything about Millennials. A Gallup poll from August 2018 revealed that only 45 percent of Millennials view capitalism positively. That’s a 12 percent decline from 2010, per CNBC. The age group is similarly skeptical of centrism, largely owing to the fact that centrist politics have dominated in our lifetimes, and don’t seem to be serving most people.
Does he have a shot?
As one of 13 Democrats running for president (so far), Buttigieg knows what he’s up against. He himself has said he’s running an “underdog campaign.” But he has also admitted that comes with benefits: “If you’re kind of a major, famous frontrunner, then I think you’re going to think a lot about just the risk of doing something wrong, the risk of slipping up. I think we’re less risk-averse because we understand this is an underdog project.”
That said, all hope is not lost—particularly if recent polls that show a double-digit jump in support are any indication.
According to FiveThirtyEight, he does have a path to the nomination. Per Nate Silver, “If Buttigieg can become the preferred choice of young voters, though there’s no guarantee of that, it would give him a powerful toe-hold in the race — Millennial voters could account for about a third of all primary voters in 2020.”
He can take Bernie Sanders’s bloc of voters if he plays his cards right: “If the Sanders campaign were to fail to launch or falter, Buttigieg could find an opening. Just as Sanders ran on a platform focused on economic populism and working-class revival, Buttigieg can and will point to the role he played in leading South Bend’s Rust Belt transformation.”
All that said, it’s still March 2019, and the primaries don’t even start until January 2020, to say nothing of the general election. There’s still a lot of time on the clock.