Buttigieg steps up his game, but…

Can the South Bend mayor bridge the racial divide to advance to the top tier of Democratic Party nomination?

Published October 19, 2019 7:29AM (EDT)

Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Ind., Mayor, Pete Buttigieg  (AP/Brynn Anderson)
Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Ind., Mayor, Pete Buttigieg (AP/Brynn Anderson)

This piece originally appeared on The Globalist.

Pete Buttigieg, the 37 year old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is on a roll. In the all important money game, he has managed to raise $51 million to date. That puts him in the same league with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

What’s more, during the fourth Democratic debate on October 15, Buttigieg gave a strong, punchy performance. Plus, he is very popular among coastal elite types.

An attractive candidate

Even though he has only been the mayor of a town of 102,000 inhabitants in total, Buttigieg is equipped with a Bill Clintonesque grasp of the many policy issues which any presidential candidate among the Democrats must show to master (and do so in an articulate manner).

Buttigieg is also a former Rhodes Scholar, studying at Harvard and Oxford, and, especially for U.S. politicians, a polyglot (almost), speaking eight languages.

In short, Buttigieg is a gifted politician. He’s young, dynamic, eloquent and moderate — all of which are qualities Americans tend to like in their presidential candidates.

Still, currently polling at about 5%, he ranks only in fourth place in the current field of candidates for the Democratic nomination.

The key question for Buttigieg is this: Can he broaden his base and siphon off many of Joe Biden’s supporters?

As Joe Biden continues to stumble, and Kamala Harris jumps down one rabbit hole after another, Buttigieg is becoming an attractive alternative for moderate Democrats who consider Warren and Sanders too far to the left.
One big caveat, though: I should have said moderate, white Democrats.

Winning black support is crucial

To date, Buttigieg has gained very little traction among black voters. This is a key obstacle for Mayor Pete to overcome. Otherwise, he could very well remain a niche candidate.

African-Americans represent about 20% of Democratic primary voters, so they are a key constituency inside the party.

It is also critical for the Democrats to succeed in the 2020 race against Donald Trump that African-Americans show up to vote in 2020. As Hillary Clinton learned the hard way, low turnout among black voters can spell the difference between winning and losing in several states.

Furthermore, African-Americans cast 60% of the votes in the Democratic primary in South Carolina. That’s the third primary contest, after Iowa and New Hampshire and thus, in terms of keeping or generating momentum for any candidate, a key test for Presidential candidates.

So far, according to polls, Joe Biden has South Carolina sewn up, with 43% of voters likely to choose him. Still, that could change over the coming months, if the former VP continues to falter.

That Mayor Pete is stuck in the mid-single digits in the polls on a national basis, so far is also due to his lack of support from black Democrats.

Thanks to his ample funding, Buttigieg has as many field offices in Iowa as Elizabeth Warren does. He also enjoys respectable poll numbers in Iowa, where he is ranked in fourth place, at 14%.

However, Iowa is a predominantly white state and it is relatively close to Indiana, which helps to boost Buttigieg’s name recognition.

In South Carolina, by contrast, Mayor Pete has a negligible staff presence. His poll numbers there are weak, at about 4%.

Whipping up the crowd in NYC

Mayor Pete’s appeal — and his challenges — were vividly on display at a recent rally in New York City which I attended on Friday, October 11. The event took place at the Manhattan Center, a large, cavernous concert hall near Penn Station.

The standing-room-only group waited patiently about two hours for Mayor Pete to speak. As a rough guess, I would estimate the crowd was 1,500-2.000. The hall was packed.

The candidate has star power and the gift of oratory, like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Up close, Buttigieg has a warm persona, piercing blue eyes and a dazzling smile, which he can turn on and off at will. The mayor is not very tall, at about 5‘ 9,” but he radiates energy.

When Mayor Pete enters a room, you can feel the electricity in the air. Buttigieg gave a rousing speech, whipping up the crowd. He did not use notes or a lectern. He roamed freely around the stage.

Buttigieg’s message was mostly positive, upbeat and forward-looking. Unlike Sanders and Warren, he did not thunder about “corruption” and a “rigged system.”

Instead, Mayor Pete spoke enthusiastically about tackling climate change and gun control. He emphasized his desire to unify Americans rather than pit them against each other, in a clear swipe at Trump.

Connecting with millennials, using humor

Buttigieg spoke for about 25 minutes and then conducted an extensive Q&A session with the audience. Several of the questions were light-hearted. Buttigieg displayed a keen sense of humor and an easy rapport with other members of his generation.

When he was asked, “What is your favorite Beatles song?,” he hesitated for a moment. Then he said, “Let’s go with ‘Come Together’, that seems to fit in with tonight’s theme.”

The moderator asked, “Who’s your favorite hip-hop artist?” Buttigieg replied, “I’m not an expert on hip-hop, but I have to say that I like listening to Kanye in the gym.”

When some in the audience groaned, Buttigieg flashed a smile and said, “I know, the politics are not great…but these things are complicated.” (Kanye West, a Trump supporter, recently posed for some fawning pictures with the President in the White House).

The audience laughed. Now, try to imagine how Donald Trump or Joe Biden would answer that question.

Opening up the Democratic Party…

Another part of Buttigieg’s appeal to voters reflects his sincere belief that the Democratic Party should take back some ground it has conceded to the Republicans. “Why should only one party have a monopoly on patriotism?,” he asked the crowd, as he talked proudly about his military service in Afghanistan.

Buttigieg also spoke about the crucial role that his faith has played in his life. He is a devout Episcopalian. Those remarks did not trigger a wave of applause from the young, probably highly secular crowd of New Yorkers.

However, Buttigieg’s religious values will resonate with many Americans. He is performing an important service in this respect, since many progressive Democrats have tended to disparage religious people.

Champion of the LBGTQ community

Buttigieg is opening up the Party in another direction, of course, as the first openly gay candidate for President. This has helped him in this early stage of his campaign, as he has attracted strong financial support from the LBGTQ community.

The crowd on Friday night was an eclectic NYC mix, as one would expect, but a large percentage was LBGTQ.

By coincidence, it was National Coming Out Day. During the Q&A session, one audience member asked Buttigieg about his decision to reveal that he was gay.

The mayor spoke simply and movingly about his first date with Chasten (now his husband), a guy with “big glasses and a big smile.”

The crowd in NYC roared with approval…but how would that story go over in Indianapolis? Are Americans in flyover country ready to accept a gay President and a First Guy in the White House?

Mayor Pete has emphasized that after he came out, he was re-elected by a huge margin. That is reassuring, but the voters in South Bend already knew him well.

This article is republished from The Globalist: On a daily basis, we rethink globalization and how the world really hangs together.  Thought-provoking cross-country comparisons and insights from contributors from all continents. Exploring what unites and what divides us in politics and culture. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  And sign up for our highlights email here.

By Ryan O'Connell

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