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Opinion | Diane Hessan

First impressions: Looking for a winner in Buttigieg

2020 Democratic presidential candidate South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
2020 Democratic presidential candidate South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Democrats are on the hunt for a presidential candidate they can rally around. Already faced with a large pool of nominees — 20 and counting — the latest infatuation for some is Pete Buttigieg.

Last month, before the recent frenzy over the mayor from South Bend, Ind., kicked into high gear, I asked the 500 voters in my nationwide panel — ranging from very liberal to very conservative — to document their impressions as they watched CNN’s Jake Tapper interview Buttigieg in a town hall format. At the time, most had not heard of him, and I was curious to see how they would size up a contender.

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Nearly 200 of my voters gave it a close viewing, and only a few believed it was too early to start evaluating candidates in depth.

Anne from Nebraska was the first to respond. “Uh-oh,” she said, “young, gay, white, male, and only a mayor. Sounds like five strikes against him for my Democratic friends.” But after viewing the whole segment, Anne wrote back, “Amazingly thoughtful, prepared, well-educated, substantive, and impressive. I still don’t see how he could possibly win.” And that in a nutshell is where most of the Democrats who responded are; they like what they see in a candidate or two, but they’re not confident “their” candidate can win in 2020.

Across the country, both Republicans and Democrats on my panel admired Buttigieg’s military experience, brains, and ability to communicate clearly. Voters from both ends of the political spectrum admired his Christianity and his willingness to talk about his creator. Most also liked Buttigieg’s belief that Trump is a symptom both of a larger problem in our country and of a Democratic Party that lost touch with many voters.

Strikingly, those most enthusiastic about Mayor Pete were middle-income to wealthy liberals — over age 40 — from urban areas.

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Catherine, from Boston, was one of them: “Anyone who can learn six foreign languages is clearly intelligent, curious about the rest of the world, and a true global citizen who will hopefully help shake us loose from the current nationalist, isolationist fervor that is so disastrous.”

Lynn from North Carolina agreed: “Mayor Pete was sincere and exciting and full of bold ideas, and he wasn’t afraid to deal with the tough questions.”

Added Sam from California, “After watching this, I think he’s my guy.”

Liberal voters agreed that Buttigieg seemed like a brilliant, articulate leader, who could be both sophisticated and down to earth.

Moderate Democrats were relieved that he seemed to be more centrist than other candidates, open to policies that were less extreme than Medicare for All. They were also thumbs up on his belief that impeachment is fruitless at this point — and that those who are unhappy with President Trump should vote him out at the ballot box.

One frequent concern was Buttigieg’s inexperience. “We already elected a president who quite frankly — I don’t care how smart [Barack Obama] is or well spoken — didn’t have the background to be president,” said Jim from Pennsylvania.

Mark from Minnesota said, “When I hire someone for a job, I can’t help but look at their experience. Sure I can see him working on health care and education, but on foreign policy issues, I just feel like he would be completely out of his league.”

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Democrats thought the strongest part of the interview was when Buttigieg mentioned that he had more executive experience in government than Trump and Vice President Pence — and that he would be the first commander in chief since George H.W. Bush to have served in the military. They also found that uniqueness, as in, “the smart, gay veteran with the weird name,” was a critical factor, given the blur of names and faces who seem to be saying the same thing.

Only a few thought Buttigieg’s sexual orientation would be an obstacle for them, but many commented that Mayor Pete and the media were making too big a deal of it. On the other hand, many women and people of color said they are hoping for someone who looks like them on the Democratic ticket; the mayor doesn’t fill that bill.

Scores of Trump voters were willing to watch the CNN interview and, not surprisingly, they found plenty to dislike about Buttigieg, from his casual dress to their bet that he will move farther to the left.

“If he starts in with Free Everything for Everyone Who Needs It, Trump will just tell him to go back to South Bend, hang out with Notre Dame undergrads, and modernize the Studebaker National Museum,” said Brandon from Indiana. Of course, many Trump voters are primed to dismiss whoever the Democrats nominate, like Adam from New York, who said, “Really? One more in a desperate crowd of unqualified, wannabe candidates.”

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With a few exceptions, voters of all political stripes are up for doing their homework. Will all Americans take the time to understand potentially dozens of candidates in depth? No, but in a crowded field, first impressions will matter. And for Democrats the number one question as they watched Buttigieg was: “Can he beat Trump?”

When candidates are on the debate stage, when they are in the lights next to Trump, when they are in the arena, when they are insulted and attacked, will they stand up and fight — and win? Right now, most Democratic voters are still on the lookout, hoping that the perfect competitor will emerge from the crowd.

See Diane Hessan’s methodology


Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and chair of C Space. She has been in conversation with 500 voters across the political spectrum weekly since December 2016. Follow her on Twitter @DianeHessan.