Few political observers would have picked gay, 37-year-old South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg to become one of the five or six Democratic candidates with a realistic chance at the Democratic presidential nomination. His wicked smart, analytical approach to policy and unflappable demeanor provide Democrats with not just a welcomed contrast to President Trump and to bloviating contenders who rely on soundbites, but also with the promise of recapturing Democrats’ bona fides on faith and freedom. (“Freedom has been Democratic bedrock ever since the New Deal. Freedom from want, freedom from fear. Our conservative friends care about freedom, but only make it part of the journey. They only see ‘freedom from,'” Buttigieg said in his kickoff speech. “Freedom from taxes, freedom from regulation … as though government were the only thing that can make you unfree. But that’s not true. Your neighbor can make you unfree. Your cable company can make you unfree. There’s a lot more to your freedom than the size of your government.”)
His ability to resist the leftward pull on positions such as Medicare-for-all (and his cleverness to phrase it as a goal, with a public option as the immediate next step) gives him the ability to reach more moderate voters and to preserve a rationale for his superior electability in the general election. (Hey, at least Trump won’t be able to brand him as a socialist bent on taking away your insurance plan!) His grown-up foreign policy vision and military service allow him to check the commander-in-chief box — and even allow him to label Trump an unpatriotic draft-evader.
And it turns out, he can raise a ton of money. Buttigieg’s campaign reports raising almost $25 million in the second quarter from nearly 300,000 donors. He’ll have more than enough resources to get him through this year and prepare for the Iowa caucuses.
Nevertheless, big challenges await Buttigieg.
First, he’s not the only articulate, smart contender, and in the first night of the debate he was somewhat overshadowed by the performances of two female senators who are ahead of him in the polls, Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), and of the young Texan Julián Castro. These candidates are as verbally dexterous as Buttigieg — and have more ideas and experience.
Second, Buttigieg’s “generational change” message is a bit thin. What makes this generation so much more capable of connecting with voters? Certainly, older politicians understand global warming, gun violence and student debt. Perhaps the answer lies in millennials never having experienced anything but a globalized economy, an electorate cynical about nearly all institutions, and multiethnic and racially diverse workplaces and communities. Whatever it is, he’ll need to explain more precisely what advantages youth gives him. (The answer might be that he, for example, would never have voted for the Iraq War — nor showed nostalgia for an era when women didn’t work, gays were in the closet and white men ruled the roost.)
And, third, when it comes to connecting with voters, Buttigieg’s difficulty reaching African Americans (who, if their loyalty to former vice president Joe Biden weakens, have two strong African American politicians from which to choose) remains arguably his worst problem. Iowa and New Hampshire are overwhelmingly white, providing him with a more accessible electorate in his first two contests, but a Democrat who cannot win African Americans’ votes is highly unlikely to win the nomination. (Just ask Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whose inability to win over black voters was a major factor in his loss to Hillary Clinton in 2016.) Even if such a candidate were to win the nomination, there would be grave and well-founded doubts about his ability to fire up the African American base in the general election.
Buttigieg plainly is not in the group of also-rans who worry about missing the September debate, but neither has he reached equal footing with Biden, Warren and, now, Harris. In the months ahead, he will need to work strenuously to improve his appeal to nonwhite voters while planting himself in Iowa and New Hampshire (winning either of those would automatically make him a top-tier contender). Buttigieg will need to show that he can dominate the debate stage as Harris did, but without seeming arrogant or dismissive of far more qualified politicians. (Note to file: All the male contenders need to think about how they take on female opponents without seeming like anti-woman bullies.) Finally, Buttigieg will need to be seen as effectively addressing the police shooting and racial tensions in South Bend; if he fails, concerns that he’s not ready for the leap to presidential politics will engulf his candidacy.
Buttigieg, like all contenders, has weaknesses that can block his path to the nomination. However, he also has unique advantages — which is why he’s such a fascinating politician.