The Buttigieg Option

The liberal wing of the Democratic Party wants bold change. The moderate wing wants to nominate an electable candidate. Can Mayor Pete split the difference?

PETERBOROUGH, N.H. — PETE BUTTIGIEG HAS found his lane in the Democratic presidential race. And he’d like to tell you about it.

“If you want the most ideological candidate” — that’s liberal firebrand Elizabeth Warren — “you’ve got your choice,” he said, talking to reporters after a recent campaign event in this southern New Hampshire town.

“If you want the one with the most years in Washington under their belt” — that’s centrist standard-bearer Joe Biden — “you’ve got your choice.”

“But for everybody else,” he said, "I might be your candidate.”

Buttigieg is not the first Democratic hopeful to try to wedge himself between the party’s moderate and progressive wings. (See Harris, Kamala and Booker, Cory.) But he is the first to get traction. Polls show him surging in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. And he’s attracting ever-larger crowds to his events.


They are crowds of a certain type — the standing room-only audience for his recent appearance at Peterborough’s impossibly quaint town hall, here, was silver-haired and fleece-wrapped.

Buttigieg will have to expand his coalition if he’s going to win the nomination. He has very little support, for instance, among Black voters, who are a crucial Democratic constituency.

And there are broader reasons to doubt his staying power. He’s young. And the country has never elected an openly gay man president.

But his momentum is undeniable: Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., has broken into the top tier, scrambling the dynamics of the race and raising a tantalizing question for Democrats — a question that’s been hanging over the race for months now, but has never quite been ripe.

In a party torn between liberals intent on big, sweeping change and moderates in search of electability, is it possible to land on a compromise candidate — to reconcile the Democrats’ warring impulses?


BUTTIGIEG’S MOST EAGER admirers liken him to Barack Obama. And he’s happy to indulge the comparison.

“The first time I came to this state was as a volunteer," he said, at the Iowa Democratic Party’s fall fundraiser this month, "to knock on doors for a young man with a funny name.”

There are, indeed, some striking similarities between the politicians in style and tone — starting with their penchant for uplift. But if an ascendant Obama could declare that “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America” just a “United States of America,” Buttigieg has to tune his message to a more partisan moment. That means asking his audience, at the start of his stump speech, “to picture — really picture — that first day when the sun comes up and Donald Trump is no longer the president of the United States.”

At Peterborough town hall, he followed that applause line with a rueful reference to “the rubble of institutions and norms” that Trump will leave behind — and an upbeat call for a leader who can “pick up the pieces and guide us to a better place.”

The mayor marries these Obamaesque encomiums to national unity to a cool, detached intelligence that fans of the former president will recognize. In a time of hot-blooded, shoot-from-the-hip leadership in the White House, Buttigieg, a product of Harvard, Oxford, and big-shot management consultant McKinsey, is offering a return to a smartest-guy-in-the-room presidency.


For some on the left, that’s precisely what’s wrong with Buttigieg. He’s a throwback, they say, to the most distasteful aspects of Obamaism — its technocratic pretensions and Silicon Valley corporatism. News that Buttigieg consulted with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on key campaign hires has only confirmed their suspicions.

All of that, though, is prologue to their larger critique — that Buttigieg and other candidates of his ilk have failed to offer the sort of sweeping prescriptions that Warren and fellow liberal Bernie Sanders have offered for the defining problem of our time: a massive accumulation of wealth at the very top of the economic distribution that’s left middle- and working-class families struggling to get by.

For some on the left, Pete Buttigieg is a throwback to the worst elements of Obamaism. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
For some on the left, Pete Buttigieg is a throwback to the worst elements of Obamaism. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)Elise Amendola/Associated Press

So, after Buttigieg’s speech and question-and-answer session in Peterborough, I put it to him backstage: Is he up to the task? Are his proposals for restoring the American Dream as meaningful as those of his progressive rivals?

“I think they are,” he said. And then he laid it out: his case for a stepped-down, but still-impactful progressivism; an ambitious, but politically tenable, program for renewal.

He started by touting his “Medicare for all who want it” plan, which would allow people to hold onto their private insurance if they like, or buy into Medicare voluntarily. The proposal, he argued, will get everyone covered without the hefty price tag — and political risk — of the “Medicare for All” plan that Warren and Sanders are proposing.

The mayor said he was open to the sort of wealth tax that Warren is proposing — a new, potentially game-changing levy on the stock holdings of the super-rich. But he focused, instead, on the more modest — if still significant — goal of rolling back some of the sizable tax cuts that have gone to the well-to-do in recent decades. And he said he would pour the money into ambitious programs. Buttigieg has proposed a $1.5 to $2 trillion climate change initiative that aims to get the United States to net-zero emissions by 2050, for instance. And he wants to make a big new investment in higher education — making two- and four-year public college free for the 80 percent of Americans whose families earn $100,000 or less.


The mayor, leaning forward in his slim-fit white dress shirt and navy blue tie, didn’t have the fire of his more liberal competitors. And his plans, however well-conceived, are still substantially smaller than Warren’s and Sanders’s — in some cases by an order of magnitude. But it’s hard to argue with a line he sometimes offers on the stump and trotted out in our backstage sit-down. He may not be as liberal as some of his rivals, but if elected, Buttigieg said, “I stand to be the most progressive president in our lifetime.”

The Democratic Party’s sharp turn to the left in the last few years means that even its compromise candidates — those carving out a space between the moderate and progressive camps — are offering what would have amounted to a hugely ambitious liberalism just a few years ago.


Booker, for instance, is calling for “baby bonds” — government-funded savings accounts for every child in America — that would all but eliminate the wealth gap between white and black young adults. Harris is advocating for rent subsidies that would lift an estimated 7.8 million people out of poverty.

And all of these candidates — like their more moderate and liberal opponents in the Democratic primary — would do the hugely consequential work of appointing Supreme Court justices who could alter the course of American jurisprudence and cabinet secretaries who would take climate change and consumer protection seriously.

IF THE PROMISE of a third-way candidacy is a progressive-enough nominee with a real chance to win, then the “real chance to win” part deserves equal consideration.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll from late October provided some reason for optimism. Buttigieg beat Trump 52 to 41 percent in the survey and Harris had a 9-point lead on the president.

Now, the same poll gave the more liberal candidates in the race — Warren and Sanders — even bigger edges on Trump. And if you’re a progressive voter, that may sound like permission to go for broke. But national surveys a year before the election are of limited value. High-quality state-level polls, this far out, have proven far more reliable. And that’s where presidential elections are decided anyway — particularly in the handful of battleground states that can tip the Electoral College in one direction or the other.

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times published a poll it commissioned in six of those battlegrounds — Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina — testing President Trump against three of the leading Democratic candidates: Biden, Warren, and Sanders. The results sent ripples of anxiety through the Democratic Party. It turns out that the president, while flagging in national surveys, remains quite competitive in the places that matter. And he does especially well against the liberal frontrunners: edging Sanders in four of the six battleground states and besting Warren in five of them.

Elizabeth Warren trails President Trump in a New York Times battleground states poll that's sent ripples of anxiety through the Democratic Party.
Elizabeth Warren trails President Trump in a New York Times battleground states poll that's sent ripples of anxiety through the Democratic Party.Steven Senne/Associated Press

The poll showed that the sliver of swing voters in these states who could decide the race — the roughly 15 percent who could envision themselves voting either for Trump or his Democratic opponent — are quite clear about what they want to see in a Democrat. Three-quarters say they prefer a moderate, while only 19 percent want a liberal.

That sort of finding might not be enough to convince progressive Democrats to get behind a moderate like Biden. But it’s made a growing number of them Pete-curious.

In Peterborough, I met a voter named Kathy Halverson who had come with her husband to hear Buttigieg speak. She told me she is tentatively supporting Warren — and personally favors the senator’s Medicare for All proposal — but worries that it won’t play well in the general election.

“I just don’t know if the whole country is ready for that,” she said, adding that Buttigieg’s Medicare for all who want it plan may offer enough of the change she’s craving.

It’s a calculation that a number of voters seem to be making; surveys show a decent chunk of Warren’s supporters name Buttigieg as their second choice.

But for voters placing a heavy emphasis on electability, there are reasons for pause. A separate survey of Iowa voters — the only Times poll in its latest batch to include Buttigieg — showed the mayor trailing Trump by four points, faring a little better than Warren and a little worse than Sanders and Biden.

It’s just one poll, of course. And Buttigieg is still relatively unknown. But he’s campaigned more heavily in Iowa than any other state.

There’s also the problem of Buttigieg’s ongoing struggles with Black voters. A police shooting in South Bend earlier this year exposed racial tensions in his city — and surfaced deep frustration about ongoing inequality there. If the whole point of the third-way candidate is to get a progressive-enough politician who can win, why not reconsider Black candidates like Harris or Booker who might be more able to win the support of Black voters?

Neither has gathered a lot of Black support thus far. But that could change if their campaigns take off. Back in 2008, Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses turned restrained enthusiasm from Black voters — can this guy really win? — into a fervent advocacy that carried through to the general election. That potential to awaken Black voters is certainly a key part of the rationale for the late-entry campaign of Deval Patrick, a former Massachusetts governor who has spent the last couple of years cultivating Black leaders in South Carolina, which votes fourth in the Democratic primaries after Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada.

Patrick is making an explicit play for the lane Buttigieg has claimed, arguing that he can unite liberal and moderate Democrats with his soaring calls for national renewal. But there is deep skepticism, among some operatives, that he can catch up to his rivals this late in the game.

“He’s a very decent human being," Howard Dean, a former presidential candidate and Democratic National Committee chairman told the Globe this week. "I just don’t know how the hell he raises $25 million in the next 100 days while putting an organization together.”

As for the other third-way candidates? Well, Harris and Booker are good options, in theory. But the polls show both languishing in the single digits after months of trying to break through — and Buttigieg steadily rising.

The 37-year-old mayor of a midsize city in Indiana — a Democrat with what one black congresswoman scathingly called “a Black problem” — is a less-than-ideal uniter of the party. But if Democrats torn between ambition and caution are intent on getting a little of both, they may have little choice but to throw in their lot with him.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.