Pete Buttigieg has dropped out of the 2020 Democratic primary, according to the New York Times. The former South Bend, Indiana, mayor, the winner of the Iowa caucuses and most successful openly gay candidate in primary history, didn’t perform well enough in Nevada and South Carolina — ultimately leading the candidate to conclude that the fight was over.
Buttigieg’s withdrawal came after a campaign that was, frankly, more successful than anyone first expected it to be. Mayor Pete, as he’s known, was little-known and unqualified by conventional standards — yet he managed to win Iowa and come in for a strong second place in New Hampshire before his ultimate withdrawal.
The mayor initially surged to prominence in March 2019 through a media blitz (Vox was one outlet he spoke to repeatedly), selling himself as an intelligent and relatively progressive young voice committed to reforming a political system rigged against Democrats. Buttigieg eventually tacked to the center, blasting Medicare-for-all (which he had once supported) in debates and on the campaign trail.
As his campaign went on, it became clear that Buttigieg was a candidate with a steady share in the polls and not a flash in the pan — leading to more serious scrutiny from reporters and his competitors alike. The ensuing controversies focused primarily on his checkered record on racial issues while mayor of South Bend, his career as a McKinsey management consultant, and a notably ostentatious fundraiser at a wine cave in California.
Overall, it was a record that appealed to a swath of highly educated white voters, but largely failed to expand beyond that. His campaign way overperformed expectations but ultimately could never make the former mayor quite viable.
The rise and fall of “Mayor Pete”
Buttigieg had been seen as a rising star in national Democratic politics since his election as mayor of South Bend, Indiana’s fourth-largest city, in 2011. Around President Barack Obama’s way out of office, he named Buttigieg as one of several future leaders of the Democratic Party. In 2017, Buttigieg ran to be the chair of the Democratic National Committee. He failed — dropping out just before the first round of ballots — but that did little to dampen enthusiasm for the young mayor among some party insiders.
When he burst on the presidential scene in early 2019, he almost seemed lab-engineered to appeal to a variety of Democrats looking for a clear antidote to President Donald Trump. Early on, Buttigieg emphasized his elite education (Harvard undergraduate, Rhodes scholar), impressive language skills (he speaks seven of them, apparently), and time in the US military as a way of counteracting his lack of national political experience.
He appealed to more progressive Democrats by endorsing institutional reforms like abolishing the Electoral College, creating an automatic voter registration system, and giving statehood to Puerto Rico and Washington, DC. He signaled openness to abolishing the Senate filibuster and packing the Supreme Court with new justices.
The key to his early poll rise, though, seemed to be saying yes to virtually every media opportunity. A strong speaker and a clearly smart guy, he helped his chances just by getting his face out there to voters who hadn’t heard of him. Just speaking for Vox: I interviewed him for a profile during the early 2019 period, and he also appeared on two of our podcasts. Other aspiring candidates take note: If you want to come up from nowhere, say yes to every journalist who wants to chat.
Of course, just getting out there wasn’t enough on its own. Buttigieg needed to figure out some way to distinguish himself from the pack, a “lane” that would allow him to expand beyond the fans who saw his early media appearances.
Eventually, his campaign seemed to have settled on competing for the relatively moderate lane with longtime frontrunner Joe Biden. He positioned himself against Bernie Sanders and especially Elizabeth Warren, who looked like the top contender in the fall of 2019, arguing that Medicare-for-all’s abolition of private health insurance was a bridge too far. In October’s debate, for example, he accused Warren of misleading the voters on health care: “Your signature, senator, is to have a plan for everything — except this.”
Buttigieg never succeeded in fully wresting control of the moderate lane, however. And he made enemies both on the ideological left and among black voters of all ideological stripes, among whom he could never gain any traction.
It’s hard to overstate the level of contempt directed toward Buttigieg from Sanders supporters — among the ones I’ve spoken with, he was almost certainly their most hated candidate. He stood for everything they dislike in their view of the Democratic Party: a party dominated by “meritocratic” elites of malleable ideological commitments who are mostly comfortable with the status quo of the American politics.
“No more Bright Young People with their beautiful families and flawless characters and elite educations and vacuous messages of uplift and togetherness,” writes Nathan Robinson, the editor of Current Affairs and an early left critic of Buttigieg. “Give me real human beings, not CV-padding corporate zombies.”
Buttigieg’s campaign didn’t exactly do a good job pushing back on this sentiment. Buttigieg overtly courted wealthy donors, most infamously at a wine cave in California where $900-a-bottle wine was served under Swarovski crystals. Buttigieg probably needed the money given his comparatively low national profile, but it was a terrible look in a primary heavily focused on the dangers of inequality. And the other candidates hammered him for it in the debates.
Buttigieg’s problem with black voters was likely an even bigger electoral problem. Several national polls during the campaign showed him with zero African American support. His time as South Bend mayor included clashes with local black activists over his plan to demolish vacant homes as well as a June 2019 police shooting of a black man.
“You’re running for president, and you want black people to vote for you?” one of his black constituents said in a town hall after the shooting. “That’s not going to happen.”
His campaign was aware of this problem, and worked to counteract it. However, they didn’t do a great job: The rollout of the Douglass Plan, the Buttigieg policy slate for addressing racial inequality, was marred by his campaign listing some prominent black figures as supporters without their permission. A critical piece published in the Root in January detailed a culture of racism inside the South Bend police — and argued, with some evidence, that Buttigieg ignored black officers’ direct requests for his help.
If you lose leftists and black voters, you need to make up the gap heavily somewhere else. He managed to do so in the first two majority white contests, Iowa (where he won the most delegates) and New Hampshire (where he came in second).
But when the race expanded to more diverse states, his campaign started to falter. In Nevada, he came in a distant third, more than 30 percentage points behind the winner, Sanders. And in South Carolina, the first primary featuring a majority black electorate, he failed to receive even 10 percent of the vote.
While Buttigieg may have failed to win outright in 2020, the fact that he made it as far as he did is a remarkable success. He went from being a nobody nationally to a household name among Democratic primary voters — a result that bodes well for the 38-year-old’s likely long future in Democratic politics.