I’ve never been a Pete Buttigieg skeptic. Ever since I first saw the Democratic presidential candidate in a live interview on MSNBC, I recognized his huge potential. Clearly smart. Fashionably fluid. Conversationally concise.
And a résumé to die for.
But as an older American who still remembers how gays either had to hide their orientation or sacrifice any chance of a place at America’s head table, I wondered how this gay wunderkind would, in Nixon aide John Ehrlichman’s famous words, “play in Peoria.” Well, except for the one Iowa woman who, upon learning after initially supporting him that he was gay, wanted to withdraw her support, Buttigieg played quite well in Iowa. With some 96% of the vote finally tabulated by last Thursday, Buttigieg led in 59 counties while Sanders led in only 19. In convention delegates, he actually won.
More important is where his support came from, both geographically and generationally. Buttigieg won in farm country and small towns across Iowa, and, quite surprisingly, given that older Americans have been least accepting of gays and same-sex marriage, he did surprisingly well among older Americans, who as most of us know are the most reliable voters to turn out on Election Day. (One of the old rules in political campaigning was to mindful of the 60/30 rule: Over 60% of Americans over 60 voted, while only about 30% under 30 did so.)
Perhaps equally surprising, Buttigieg did not do well among younger voters, who formed a big part of Sanders’ strength and swept him to his victory in the popular vote before delegate weighting. And, conversely, Sanders did poorly with older voters, as both generations abandoned their own — young favoring old, old favoring young. And this week we saw the same dynamic at play in the New Hampshire results: Buttigieg won equal delegates to Sanders and quite possibly would have prevailed were it not for Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s late surge, which drew largely from the same demographic groups as his.
What all this suggests, I believe, is that Buttigieg is perhaps the only Democratic candidate who can win in America’s heartland. While Klobuchar has a similar argument, she lags him both in fundraising and in building a national organization. He can win in areas that gave Trump the presidency. He has the potential to be the strongest possible Democratic candidate in the general election because he has shown the ability to win support in farm country and small towns — and now, in rural New England. And, of course, he can also win our big cities, and our East and West coasts where the bulk of votes and electoral votes are.
But. He has to win the nomination first.
The biggest obstacle he faces to that is his near-complete absence of support in communities of color and America’s black population in particular, who will be key in the upcoming South Carolina primary at the end of February. To win black votes he needs to give a more convincing explanation and the full story of his decision, as mayor of South Bend, Ind., to fire the black police chief he had appointed to head the police department there. Was that the right decision? Or was it a mistake on his part? And did the police union play a role in the chief’s ouster? If he had a do-over, would he do it all again?
When Jack Kennedy discovered that his Catholicism was a problem for some voters in 1960, the campaign decided to confront it and acknowledge his faith, and in doing so managed to turn it to his advantage. Not talking enough about this problem is a mistake for Buttigieg. He needs to acknowledge and redirect. It could be so simple as to say that if he were a racist, he wouldn’t have appointed a black police chief in the first place. It could be to acknowledge more completely a mistake on his part: He could say that given how hard it still is for many blacks to ascend to positions of prominence, he should perhaps have given the police chief a bit more leeway with a warning and a reprimand, rather than an outright firing. After all, he might add, the president of the United States arguably did far worse than this and is still in office. White privilege at work.
A pledge by Buttigieg that — if he were to secure the nomination — he would seek out a woman of color as his vice president could also help with black voters, and especially all-important black women voters. And it need not just be Stacey Abrams, a former gubernatorial candidate in Georgia; former presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California or U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Florida also would bring huge strength to the ticket. Doubtless there are others.
And, finally, to win the support of young voters, Buttigieg has to stop trying to be perfect and start being human. That perfect résumé doesn’t resonate with younger voters. Can he loosen up and get real? Can he show a bit more of his human imperfection? Can he quote Alexander Pope — “To err is human; to forgive, divine” — and mean it?
David Peterson is an economist and author. He lives in Duluth.