Pete Buttigieg threw everything into winning the Iowa Democratic caucuses and – with 71% of the vote in following Monday’s results debacle – his gamble may well have paid off.
If so, the former mayor of tiny South Bend, Indiana, may look back on this moment as the peak of his political career, or the start of a long, hard slog that could take him all the way to the White House.
Supporters of Buttigieg, a military veteran and intellectual whose appeal recalls that of Barack Obama, see him as a fresh, upbeat voice of moderation who could potentially unite the party and unseat Donald Trump.
Critics say he is an inexperienced, policy-lite novice who worked as a management consultant for McKinsey, holds fundraisers in the “wine caves” of the super-rich, and has no record of the support among non-whites he would need to win the Democratic nomination and the November election.
The great unknown is whether the US would vote for a gay president. Those dismissing such worries point to Obama twice proving the US could elect a black man, and Hillary Clinton’s netting of 3m more votes than Trump in 2016, which showed a woman could win the popular vote. Further back, John F Kennedy overcame suggestions a Catholic could never win the White House.
An October poll showed only half of American voters said they were ready for a gay president, and some have put the gender gap in Buttigieg’s support down partially to male homophobia. A voter in Iowa asking to rescind her vote for Buttigieg after learning that he was gay was widely reported this week. “Are you saying that he has the same-sex partner?” she asked. “I don’t want anybody like that in the White House.”
Born in 1982 to a Maltese-born father and an American mother, Pete Buttigieg – pronounced buddha-judge – attended Harvard and Oxford and worked as a management consultant before serving in the US naval reserve from 2009 to 2017, reaching the rank of lieutenant and being awarded the Joint Service Commendation Medal following his seven-month tour in Afghanistan in 2014.
After working for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid, among other political campaigns, he was elected mayor of his home city of South Bend in 2012. He came out as gay in 2015 and won that year’s election with 80% of the vote, marrying his partner, Chasten Glezman, in 2018.
His time as mayor was not without controversy – some of which partly explains suspicion of him among some African-American Democrats. He notoriously received less than 1% support from black Democrats in one 2019 poll.
In 2012, Buttigieg asked for the resignation of the city’s first black police chief amid a row over the illegal taping of officers’ telephone calls, and the city was sued for racial discrimination. In 2019, he was seen as reacting in a flat-footed way to the killing of an African-American man by a white police officer. “You’re running for president and you want black people to vote for you? That’s not going to happen,” one woman told him.
It’s a problem Buttigieg – who backs a publicly run health insurance scheme, background checks for gun-buyers, a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and tackling climate change – will have to resolve if he is to make the case that Joe Biden is not as electable as he seems and that the centrist Democratic establishment should unite around him instead.
He can hope for a good showing in the New Hampshire primary next week, but the diverse electorates of South Carolina, California and Texas will prove much more difficult terrain, and may see him eclipsed.
Meanwhile, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg – who plans to join the race in earnest in March and has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising in California and elsewhere – will be making the same argument to Democratic moderates that he is the most electable moderate. The billionaire doubled his spending on TV ads following the Iowa debacle, clearly sensing an opening.
And if the centrist vote splits three ways between Buttigieg, Biden and Bloomberg, that could end up benefiting the man who seems to have come second in Iowa – the veteran socialist senator Bernie Sanders.
“In order to govern, in order to lead, in order to move this country forward, we need a president focused on the future and ready to leave the politics of the past in the past,” Buttigieg said in New Hampshire on Tuesday. His opponents will hope to leave the former mayor’s strong showing in Iowa in the past instead.