Can The Buttigieg Boomlet Last?

Pete Buttigieg is getting a lot of attention for a relatively unknown candidate. but it's unclear if it can last.

Of all the current Democratic candidates for President, the one that has been the most surprising in terms of his reception by voters, the media, and his performance on the stump has been South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who entered the Presidential race earlier this month and has seen himself rise in the polls to the point where he’s on a par with far better-known candidates such as Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, and Elizabeth Warren. As The Washington Post’s Dan Balz notes, the question is how long this momentum can last and whether or not it’s sustainable going forward:

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is on a trajectory that few people would have imagined when he first 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 New Jersey senator Bill Bradley. 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 to 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. He 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.

(…)

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 both 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.

Looking at the numbers, Buttigieg has been doing surprisingly well for a candidate that many people had never heard of prior to his entry into the race for President. While he only registers one percent in the most recent Des Moines Register poll of Iowa Democrats, for example, he is doing much better nationally. In the RealClearPolitics poll average., for example, he’s averaging 6.0% of the vote, with some polls putting him as high as 9%. This puts him in the same territory as candidates such as Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, and Kamala Harris, all of whom were better known at the start of their campaigns than he was. On the fundraising side. his most recent fundraising numbers show that he raised $7.1 million and has $6.4 million cash on hand. He’s also been something of a media star, with frequent recent appearances on CNN and MSNBC that, by all accounts, have gone very well for him.

To say the least Buttigieg’s rise is surprising for a number of reasons. At just 37 years of age, he’s the youngest candidate in the field at the moment, and among the youngest in any major party to run for President.1 His only political experience has been as Mayor of South Bend, a city of just over 100,000 people, an office in which he has served since 2012. Additionally, he was relatively unknown outside of some inner Democratic political circles prior to entering the race. Despite all of this, though, he does seem to have several positive things going for him, including an energetic campaign style and a personality that seems to be doing well on the campaign stump in the short time that he’s been a candidate. He also happens to be the first openly gay candidate in either major party, a fact which is in no small way responsible for the attention he’s been getting from the media.

On the issues, Buttigieg appears to be trying to appeal to both the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and the more centrist wing of the party, with a concerted effort to reach out to younger voters who may be frustrated by the fact that the top candidates in the field are all in their 60s and 70s. On the issues, his stances are traditionally Democratic but there really doesn’t appear to be any single issue on which he stands out compared to the other candidates For that reason alone, one has to wonder how long this Buttigieg Boomlet can last and whether he will be able to vault himself into more serious consideration by voters, especially in Iowa where it would seem as though he’d at least need to make a respectable showing in the caucuses for his campaign to be taken seriously going forward.

In his analysis, Balz compares Buttigieg to candidates such as Bill Bradley, who ran for the Democratic nomination in 2000 in a field that was largely dominated by then Vice-President Al Gore. and Bruce Babbitt, the former Governor of Arizona who ran for the Democratic nomination in 1988. The difference at least at this point is that Buttigieg has not reached the level of support that either Bradley or Babbitt did before they ultimately dropped out of the race after the first round of primaries. Indeed. at this point, the question for Buttigieg is whether he faces the danger of peaking far too early in the campaign to do himself any good.

1 The youngest candidates ever to run for President of a major party are William Jennings Bryan who first ran when he was 36 in 1896, Harold Stassen, who first ran when he was 37 in 1944. and Thomas Dewey, who was 38 when he ran against Franklin Roosevelt in 1944.
FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, US Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. al Ameda says:

    There is a LONG way to go, but thus far, only a few weeks into this forever-campaign season, I like what I’ve seen of Buttigieg. Certainly he’s opened nicely, better in my view than Beto or Booker.

    I have no idea who will emerge once these candidates are subject to vetting or (in the case of Biden and Bernie) re-vetting.

  2. Andrew says:

    Hold on. I will go check.
    Brb 1 year from now. Unless someone has a Delorean with a flux capacitor? Bueller?

    On a serious note. It depends if he stays positive, while letting the Congress and the Mueller Report and the pacs do the mud slinging.
    Trump will not by beaten by going low. He has no bottom to his barrel.
    As far as how Pete fares against the other (D)’s, again stay positive. Let the people decide. Obama is correct, and the candidates should do their best not to fight, this gives Trump ammo.

  3. Andrew says:

    Did not mean to double post, but there is a glitch in the matrix.

    As far as how Pete fares against the other (D)’s, again stay positive. Let the people decide. Obama is correct, and the candidates should do their best not to fight, and give Trump ammo.

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    Buttigieg is doing something more subtle than staying positive, he’s slipping the stiletto between Republican ribs in the most mild and gentlemanly way. Make no mistake, his attack on Pence drew blood. I think in many ways he’s the perfect opposite of Trump: smart, morally grounded, religious, educated, measured, mature and practical. The opposite of a big dumb ape blurting insults on Twitter is not a Lefty doing the same, it’s a Lefty doing what Buttigieg is doing.

    No idea if he survives, but I’d like him to.

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  5. Kit says:

    @Andrew:

    Trump will not by beaten by going low. He has no bottom to his barrel.

    I guess that depends on what you mean by going low, but the right person, a person with a quick and cruel wit, could humiliate Trump. Done twice, Trump would be toast.

  6. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    He not only drew blood from Pence, but the whole of the religious right that has signed on as Trump’s enablers. When the counter-attack starts with Butt-edge-edge doesn’t know what it means to be a Christian, you know that he gave voice to a significant segment of the religious community that while pleased with the judges are feeling guilt about voting for Tiny.

  7. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Kit:

    Unfortunately Al Franken is not running.

  8. Gustopher says:

    The smart money would be on him fading out pretty soon. But, the smart money would have been on him never getting this far, so insert that shruggie Unicode thing here.

    I don’t see a lot of brown folks around Buttigieg, and in a party that is a coalition of brown folks, women and educated white folks, that might be a problem. A casual indifference to brown folks is clearly better than the Republican hostility to brown folks, but may not be enough to win the nomination. And we will need the base energized to vote for the general, and I am wary of relying on Trump to energize that part of our base for us.

    I think he has the Norwegian-American vote locked up.

    I like Buttigieg. Some of my friends and I watched his announcement speech before Game of a Thrones last week, and most of us thought the speech was better. It may not be a surprise that we are all really white, and listen to NPR.

    I still want to know what he is passionate about. Other than his lovely husband and their dogs.

  9. Kit says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Unfortunately Al Franken is not running.

    I hadn’t thought of him, but yes, Franken strikes me as a perfect Trump slayer. Lucky for Republicans that Democrats got to Franken first.

  10. Gustopher says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Pity that Gillibrand took his hand and used it to grope women while he was on the campaign trail and a sitting Senator. It was really wrong of her to do that, and he has suffered terribly as a result.

    And what’s the big deal anyway — it was nothing compared to what Trump is accused of having done. After all, given the white nationalism coming from the Republicans these days, we have all started shrugging off relatively minor casual racism as a harmless trifle. I don’t see why this gets treated differently.

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  11. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Gustopher:
    Kit expressed the desire for someone to out Tiny, Tiny. There are only 2 Dems that I’m aware of that can do that, Franken and AOC, since AOC is too young, we are left with Franken to fill that roll. That Franken is an admitted harasser of women only adds to his bonafides as a potential Tiny slayer.

  12. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    Buttigieg is not only young in a party where there are too many octogenarians in leadership positions, he is the only executive in the race. As a mayor he has to deal with voters every single day.

    If there were a popular governor running for the nomination he wouldn’t be getting so much attention.

  13. Monala says:

    @Andre Kenji de Sousa: there is a governor running for president: Jay Inslee of Washington State.

  14. de stijl says:

    @Monala:

    I pay attention. And I’m informed. I am a politically aware person.

    I literally could not identify Inslee in a police line-up.

    As to Buttigieg, he’s chill. As Michael Reynolds said “Buttigieg is doing something more subtle than staying positive”… He’s provocative but menschy. Kinda Obamaesque in a way, but not as professorial. His poke at Pence was spot on.

    And his hubby correcting him when Butigieg surfaced Phish as a possible inaugural band when Beyonce was clearly the correct choice. That was pretty adorable.

    I would not be surprised at all if this dude was the nominee.

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  15. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    I dunno how important it is to *slay* Trump. He’s certainly invulnerable to Democratic attacks as far as his posse goes, and I’m not sure that *independent* voters (assuming that they exist, I have my doubts) will be impressed if they’re not already anti-s.

  16. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @de stijl: Neither could I. And I live in Washington. (I left out the “actually” just for you.)

  17. de stijl says:

    @Gustopher:

    The Franken apologists are short-lived. Come next Senatorial election in MN, it’s a non-issue.

  18. de stijl says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    (I left out the “actually” just for you.)

    Lol. Were you the “Actually…” person? I was pretty hard on you, if so.

    There’s nothing inherently wrong with starting off with “Actually, …” but you have to prove it.

    Pro tip: never lead with “Actually, …” Even if you have the goods, that first impression hurts the argument.

  19. de stijl says:

    Creditionalism cannot be a issue in 2020 because of Trump. He had none in 2016 and he won.

    That Buttigieg was *just* a mayor of a middle-sized city is now moot. Unless one wants to highlight Trump’s utter lack of credentials for the job, that line of criticism is entirely cut off.

  20. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @Monala: And Hickenlooper. But I forgot these two…. ;-D

  21. Michael Reynolds says:

    @de stijl:
    That’s the beauty of following Trump. The bar is so low now that earthworms can clear it.

    In any case I’ve always though the job was IQ, judgment, temperament, all that character stuff. The right character has already sought out the right education and spent time seriously engaging on issues because that’s part of the definition of right character. I mean, only an asshole with no respect for the office or the American people would run for the office without having spent so much as thirty fucking seconds thinking through an issue. Any issue.

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  22. de stijl says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The folks who claim they obey tradition, values, credentials, and honor voted for Donald effing Trump.

    We’ve also established the boundaries of “temperamentally unfit” and “psychologically unsuitable”. Furthermore, we’ve established that R voters are totally down for voting for Donald effing Trump.

  23. Kit says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    I dunno how important it is to *slay* Trump. He’s certainly invulnerable to Democratic attacks as far as his posse goes

    Sure, Trump is invulnerable to traditional Democratic attacks. But he’s a bully, and the people who admire bullies will not tolerate humiliation in their hero. If one of the geeky Democratic honors students (Buttigieg?) gave Trump a rhetorical black eye, the mean but cowardly kids in his posse would melt away, and a blue wave would sweep the country. The national cancer would continue to fester, but, for at least two years, the path forward would be clear.

    I’m not saying that the Democrats should focus on this, I’m simply saying that Trump is uniquely vulnerable.

  24. Gustopher says:

    @Andre Kenji de Sousa: Cory Booker was the mayor of Newark. May not be an executive now, but has that experience.

    It’s not a governorship, but it’s something.

    There is a smattering of governors and mayors in the third tier candidates, but as Buttigieg has shown, yesterday’s third tier can be today’s second tier.

    Plus Harris and Klobuchar were both AG’s. That’s sort of executivey.

  25. James Joyner says:

    @de stijl:

    Unless one wants to highlight Trump’s utter lack of credentials for the job, that line of criticism is entirely cut off.

    As I kept reminding my (then)-fellow Republicans, the fact that Barack Obama was barely qualified by resume to be President in 2008 was no longer relevant in 2012. Four years as President was more experience being President than any other candidate in the race could offer. Trump will be in that position in this race.

    To be sure, Trump is a shitty President and doesn’t have any of Obama’s intellectual curiousity or work ethic. But he nonetheless has more direct “experience” than any possible challenger, including Joe Biden.

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  26. Teve says:

    And his hubby correcting him when Butigieg surfaced Phish as a possible inaugural band when Beyonce was clearly the correct choice. That was pretty adorable.

    “Vote for my opponent and America gets Ted Nugent. Vote for me and we’ll have Beyonce” is actually a good encapsulation of the race in a much broader sense.

  27. Paine says:

    I’m sorry, but as much as I like Mayor Pete I think if he’s up on the debate stage with Trump he’s going to look like a kid making his first appearance at the adult table over Thanksgiving. Of course, Trump has lowered the bar for what we consider “qualified” but Dems shouldn’t give up their good governance brand. Pete for VP? Sure. Give him a term or two in the WH and he’d be more than qualified at that point.

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  28. Tony W says:

    As a true Christian, in the sense of actually following the teachings of Jesus, Mayor Pete is the perfect foil for fake-everything Trump.

    In a rational world, he would siphon off all of the religious right, who claim to want a more “godly” governmental approach. Until he learns to cynically leverage “Christian” buzzwords to do evil he will never capture that voter bloc.

    That said, from what I’ve heard so far, I’m a big fan. Buttigieg has pulled me away somewhat from some other folks I admire, Harris, O’Rourke and even Sanders have lost some points with me because of this guy.

    Hopefully America will notice the real ideas being debated here and get excited about the possibilities.

  29. Scott F. says:

    @Paine:
    I prefer Buttigieg for VP as well, but I believe seeing Mayor Pete on the debate stage with Trump could just as easily highlight how old The Donald is. Seasoned is important for some in their president, but Trump’s followers love the tough guy. Show him as the fossil he is.

  30. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @Gustopher:

    Cory Booker was the mayor of Newark. May not be an executive now, but has that experience.

    Yes. And it’s interesting that as the mayor of Newark he was a political star. As a Senator he is completely bland. Every interesting politician that becomes a US Senator seems to become less interesting after they are are elected…

  31. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kit: Wow! Is that available by the container load? My little town has the largest number of weed stores per capita of any city in America. I’d make zillions.

  32. charon says:

    @de stijl:

    That Buttigieg was *just* a mayor of a middle-sized city is now moot. Unless one wants to highlight Trump’s utter lack of credentials for the job, that line of criticism is entirely cut off.

    Couldn’t Trump be Exhibit A of why credentials matter?

    @James Joyner:

    To be sure, Trump is a shitty President and doesn’t have any of Obama’s intellectual curiousity or work ethic. But he nonetheless has more direct “experience” than any possible challenger, including Joe Biden.

    Only if watching “Fox and Friends” and getting rolled by Kim Jong Un qualifies as “experience.” Even if, not really the right sort of experience.

  33. Matt says:

    @Paine: Hey while you’re looking into the future could you hook me up with the big powerball number?

    Because otherwise you’re just ASSuming…

    Now if you want to walk me through why you are so sure that’ll happen I’m down with that.

  34. Kylopod says:

    @Kit:

    I hadn’t thought of him, but yes, Franken strikes me as a perfect Trump slayer. Lucky for Republicans that Democrats got to Franken first.

    I love Franken, but what happened to him is pretty proof positive that he would not have been the perfect Trump slayer. I don’t even need to get into whether you think his resignation was warranted or not. The fact is that it was his choice to resign–therefore, either he was in fact damaged goods or he lacked the fortitude to stick it out. (As Matt Yglesias put it years ago, “The secret to surviving political sex scandals is: Don’t resign!”)

    More broadly, this speaks to the whole problem in the way many people frame the issue of how best to take on Trump. Yes, any Democrat who expects to win must be one tough enough to take on the slime machine. But that was true long before Trump came along. Trump didn’t win because he successfully destroyed Hillary; she was fatally damaged before he set his sights on her, and he was simply the beneficiary. (Look at her favorability ratings in Nov. 2015–they were just about as bad as they would be on Election Day a year later, and that was at a time when Trump was mostly ignoring her and instead duking it out with his GOP rivals.) There are many reasons why Hillary lost, but her being weak and passive in the face of Trump’s attacks wasn’t one of them. Nothing illustrates this better than the first debate, when millions of Americans got the chance to watch Trump bash Hillary to her face on live TV. The result? Her poll numbers rose and his took a nosedive. He ultimately recovered (when the media attention moved away from him and toward Hillary), but not because of his attacks. The reason he won while Romney and McCain lost wasn’t because he was “better” at attacking his opponent than they were. He was just a lot less subtle and calculating. If anything, his attacks turned more people off than they drew in. A Republican who takes the Bush route of pretending to be above it all while his goons stick a shiv in his opponent’s back is likely to be more effective than Trump’s crude, WWE style.

    Some people are seriously confused about the causal relationship between Trump’s antics and his electoral success. They see that he acted like a gorilla and won, and they conclude that it must be the reason he won. The possibility that he won in spite of his behavior doesn’t even cross their mind. And so they think the only way to beat him is find another gorilla. That’s what was behind the push for Avenatti. How’s that going now?

  35. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Gustopher: It’s going to suck when the Dems find out that most black people are socially conservative and only tolerate the Party open courtship of the LGBTQ vote because the Republican party is openly prejudice. Buttigieg is going to be a bridge to far…the most blindly stanch Democratic vote are church going African-Americans. They sit in the same churches with Republicans–they watch the 700 club with openly-Republican televangelists and shout “Amen” at the TV. The only difference between them and Republican parishioners is that they believe the Gov’t has more of a responsibility to facilitate social mobility and right social wrongs. Beyond that–they believe everything else their pastors say “The Bible says..” about life, death, and what comes in between.

    Mayor Pete will not have equal or greater Black turnout than HRC. It simply wont happen. For one, there isn’t the same urgency that exist among white liberals to oust Trump. Hell, every President except for Obama and Jimmy Carter were, at a minimum prejudice, and the majority were full on white supremacists.

    Mayor Pete has a great message, however, in today’s politics of unsophisticated voters and ‘race to the bottom” messaging–the message IS NOT NEARLY AS IMPORTANT AS THE MESSENGER.

  36. An Interested Party says:

    Only if watching “Fox and Friends” and getting rolled by Kim Jong Un qualifies as “experience.”

    Don’t forget binging on fast food, picking kiss asses for important government positions, and attending fawning political rallies…yeah, so much “experience”…

    It’s going to suck when the Dems find out that most black people are socially conservative and only tolerate the Party open courtship of the LGBTQ vote because the Republican party is openly prejudice.

    Ahh, such a fine line between socially conservative and prejudice…I mean, how bad can homophobia be when God approves of it…funny thing, though…back in the day, God approved of racism too…

    The only difference between them and Republican parishioners is that they believe the Gov’t has more of a responsibility to facilitate social mobility and right social wrongs.

    Actually, plenty of Republicans believe that the government should help people, just not, you know, those other people sitting in those other pews…

    Mayor Pete has a great message, however, in today’s politics of unsophisticated voters and ‘race to the bottom” messaging–the message IS NOT NEARLY AS IMPORTANT AS THE MESSENGER.

    Oh absolutely! We can’t have a homosexual in the White House! That would just lower the standards there so much…

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  37. Kit says:

    @Kylopod:

    More broadly, this speaks to the whole problem in the way many people frame the issue of how best to take on Trump.

    I mostly agree. Then again, my point was not to say that Franken would be the ideal Democrat to take on Trump, but simply to say that such a person has the potential to humiliate Trump, and public humiliation is the only way I see to stab at the heart of his support.

    That said, the prudent strategy is to find a solid candidate would can simply peel off a few more votes than Hillary managed.

  38. Just nutha says:

    @Jim Brown 32: Personally, I’m very much in sync with the idea that it would be better to be governed by wise atheists than by foolish Christians, but I bet that I can count the number of Evangelicals that I know who would agree with me on one hand and have fingers left over. For American Christians, Buttigieg is probably a bridge too far if they’re not on the left already–and maybe even then.