On Sunday, the field of candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination narrowed again, as Pete Buttigieg, the former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, announced that he was dropping out.
“The truth is that the path has narrowed to a close, for our candidacy if not for our cause,” Buttigieg told supporters in his home town. The mayor talked with both former President Barack Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden on Sunday night, and is expected to throw his support behind Biden in the coming days.
Pete Buttigieg’s campaign for the presidency was an extraordinary one in a variety of ways. At the age of thirty-eight – and with no experience at a national or even statewide level – America’s first openly gay presidential contender rose from almost total obscurity to the top tier of Democratic candidates, jostling for space with governors, senators, and a former Vice President of the United States.
The youthful mayor impressed people from all over the political spectrum with his military credentials (he served as a Navy intelligence officer in Afghanistan) and his obvious intellectual chops; he is a Harvard graduate, a Rhodes scholar, and speaks eight languages.
He was also able to construct a formidable campaign team and raise huge sums of money, an impressive feat for a man with such a small national profile.
Buttigieg’s campaign was able to outlast those of far more likely-seeming candidates in an extremely crowded primary field – which included Montana’s Governor Steve Bullock, California’s Senator Kamala Harris, or Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee – and pull off a shock result in the Iowa caucuses, winning more delegates than any other candidate (although Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont won the popular vote), and coming a narrow second in the New Hampshire primary.
However, the following two states – Nevada and South Carolina – set Buttigieg back thanks to a weakness that the campaign had consistently struggled to address: his lack of popularity among communities of color.
The issue of race has plagued Buttigieg since the start of his campaign, with his mayoral record quickly coming under scrutiny for how he dealt with racism in South Bend’s police force. His campaign staff didn’t do him any favors by botching the rollout of “The Douglass Plan” – a raft of policies aimed at reducing racial inequality – by falsely claiming that a number of prominent African American leaders had endorsed it, when they had not.
Unlike his rivals – particularly Joe Biden – Buttigieg never had a strong network of relationships in the black community, but he also seemed indifferent to pursuing these relationships. When criticized by a black constituent in South Bend at a campaign event, he told her, “Ma’am, I’m not looking for your vote.”
Buttigieg’s personal style put off a lot of potential supporters. His carefully crafted political persona struck many as insincere, especially compared to rather-less polished styles of both Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden that come across as “genuine.”
Buttigieg also employed a rhetorical style that emphasized lofty sentiments, rather than specificities – avoiding controversial opinions to the point where he would actually say little at all, but with a lot of flowery language.
Notably, his withdrawal speech contained the phrase “Sometimes the longest way around is really the shortest way home”. In his attempts to push himself forward as a compromise candidate who could both pursue progressive reform and win over Republicans, Buttigieg altered his campaign’s policy planks.
His central message of unity was also undercut by the way he undermined and belittled some of his opponents.
Even his speech on Sunday contained a barely-concealed swipe at Bernie Sanders and his supporters. Buttigieg argued that Democrats need “a broad based agenda… not one that gets lost in ideology.”
(As if the neoliberal agenda is somehow non-ideological!)
Buttgieg’s belittling of opponents was even more pronounced on the debate stage. A spat over his lack of experience with Minnesota’s Senator Amy Klobuchar devolved into a full-blown feud over the course of several debates, derailing the debate for both candidates. Buttigieg came off as mean-spirited in those moments, particularly when he claimed that the Senator didn’t know “the first thing” about Mexican politics – to which she replied: “Are you calling me dumb?”
Although he is out of the race, Buttigieg may still have significant influence over who ultimately becomes the Democratic nominee.
In fact, he has already discussed this influence with former President Obama, according to those familiar with a conversation on Sunday.
With less than two days until Super Tuesday, Buttigieg’s supporters could prove decisive in key state primaries if they vote as a concerted bloc.
In Texas, for example, Buttigieg’s supporters could give Joe Biden a much needed boost by moving into his camp.
Buttigieg’s influence could even extend to the convention itself if, as FiveThirtyEight’s primary model currently predicts, no candidate wins an outright majority of delegates. That prediction, of course, could be obsolete very soon, as the presidential electoral landscape is rapidly changing right now.
Buttigieg is reportedly planning to appear at an event with Joe Biden in Dallas tonight to endorse Biden, according to a CNN report. If true, that could help steer Buttigieg’s supporters (and especially his Texas supporters) into Biden’s camp.