Like many political observers, I was not expecting anyone significant to drop out of the 2020 Democratic race between the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday. There was only a three-day window between the two events, and anyone who had accumulated delegates in the first four races had a legitimate argument to see how Tuesday’s contests would play out.
In that way, Pete Buttigieg managed to surprise everyone again. He suspended his campaign Sunday night. As the Washington Post reported: “The development marks an abrupt end to what was briefly an ascendant candidacy, as Buttigieg won the Iowa caucuses and came in second in New Hampshire. But despite attracting enormous attention, significant support and sometimes enthusiastic crowds, there was no clear path forward toward the nomination.”
There are three ways of looking at his candidacy. The first is that Buttigieg attracted a unique strain of online antipathy. It began with a March 2019 Current Affairs hit piece and proceeded all the way to the online snark that followed the news of his withdrawal.
Buttigieg seemed to inspire this outsize loathing for two interrelated reasons. The first is that he was the purest meritocrat running this year. His résumé — Harvard, Oxford, McKinsey, naval intelligence — was longer than his political track record as the mayor of South Bend, Ind. He seemed to check off a lot of boxes one would have wanted in a presidential candidate in the late 20th century (which might explain why his best demographic was older voters). In 2020, his affiliation with elite institutions was off-putting to populists on both sides of the aisle. Second, his success in the 2020 primary clearly rankled candidates who were older, had longer political résumés and were not white men. You know that, as I type this, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar is basking in the knowledge that she lasted longer than her debate-stage bête noire.
The second way to look at Buttigieg is to recognize that for all the privileges he might have received as a white man, he also earned the unluckiest bounce of the primary season. We know now that he won the Iowa caucuses. Think about this for a second. It’s a stunning result for the youngest candidate and only gay man in the race. He beat a former vice president and four sitting U.S. senators in the process. Had this fact been known, say, the night of the caucuses, one could imagine that Buttigieg might have earned a slightly bigger bounce in New Hampshire, where he finished a close second to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. His supporters are not wrong to note that for all of Klobuchar’s griping, she absorbed much more press attention for her third-place finish in New Hampshire than he did for his close second.
If Buttigieg had been the acknowledged winner of both Iowa and New Hampshire, it is possible that he would have attracted more of the moderate vote in Nevada and maintained his viability. His overall rise was still limited; The Post observed that “if there was one vulnerability that felled him, it was his inability to win trust or support from black voters, a key pillar of the Democratic coalition.” Still, as a long-shot candidate when he announced, he was right to focus on Iowa. With Buttigieg being one of the biggest institutionalists running, it seems like a rather cruel twist of fate that the incompetence of the Iowa Democratic Party sabotaged his run.
The third way to look at Buttigieg is that he forced me to take his ideas seriously. When he first announced, it seemed absurd to believe that the mayor of a university town would have a viable shot at the presidency. Nonetheless, he engaged the media quite adeptly, including during a very successful Fox News town hall. Despite being the youngest and least experienced candidate on the debate stage, Buttigieg consistently outclassed his competitors in that venue.
Some of his ideas, like expanding the Supreme Court, seemed pretty out there. Buttigieg gave a meaty foreign policy speech, however, that showed a firm grasp of the issues. He was impressive enough to attract almost all the best Democratic foreign policy talent under 40 to his campaign.
Given where Pete Buttigieg started out in this race, he’s already won in many respects. He is now a national figure. He could run again in 2056 and he’d still be younger than Joe Biden is right now. He has time to build some trust with the communities that do not trust him right now.
Vox’s Zack Beauchamp noted that Buttigieg “appealed to a swath of highly educated white voters.” As someone who resembles that demographic, I hope that Buttigieg has a long and inspiring political career. America could do a lot worse.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.