A 37-Year Old Indiana Mayor Gets a Boost in a Crowded 2020 Field

Emma Kinery
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A 37-Year Old Indiana Mayor Gets a Boost in a Crowded 2020 Field

(Bloomberg) -- There was no big splash when the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, jumped into the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

But the 37-year-old with a difficult-to-pronounce name has been wading through questions from crowds in early primary states and grabbing every television interview he can, leaning on an earnest manner, a sense of humor and deftness on issues to create a bit of an early Buttigieg boomlet.

Parin Finch, 43, who attended a recent Buttigieg rally in Columbia, South Carolina, said she’s still shopping for a candidate to support and loves Senator Kamala Harris of California. But Buttigieg -- pronounced boot-edge-edge -- is moving up on her list.

“He had it,’’ she said after the rally. “Whatever it is, he has it.”

Buttigieg still faces the same hurdle as most of the 14 other Democrats currently running for the party’s 2020 nomination: Getting noticed in a pool of candidates that includes several with national name recognition and followings as well as extensive fundraising contacts. That list includes Harris, her Senate colleagues Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas.

‘Favorable to Underdogs’

Buttigieg, bidding to be the youngest and first openly gay president, said the sheer number of candidates in the race -- there could be 20 by the time of the Iowa caucuses next February -- means no one has a really commanding advantage.

“There’s certainly a lot of people that I admire in the mix,” he said in an interview in Greenville, South Carolina. “A lot of people who have been famous for a much longer time. But I also think that voters really want to look at all their options and I’ve never in my lifetime seen an environment in the Democratic Party that is more favorable for underdogs and newcomers than right now.”

The disparity between the top tier and the rest of the field is seen in fundraising, crowds and early polling. O’Rourke, who shot to national prominence during an unsuccessful bid for the Senate in deeply Republican Texas, draws big crowds and in the 24 hours after announcing his candidacy, his campaign said it raised $6.1 million.

Buttigieg’s biggest fundraising haul was $600,000 in the day after appearing on a March 10 CNN town hall. That was more than a month after he entered the race.

Rising in Polls

Buttigieg’s best showing in a national poll is four percent in the most recent Quinnipiac University survey. That’s well behind Vice President Joe Biden, who’s expected to announce his intentions in April, Sanders, O’Rourke and Harris. Yet it’s a bump up from the zero or one percent he was polling earlier in March, before a series of television appearances. It puts him even with Warren and ahead of three other senators, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand.

Perhaps more important for Buttigieg, two recent polls show a surge that would propel him to the top tier in Iowa, which formally kicks off the nomination contest.

Joe Trippi, a long-time Democratic strategist who has held senior roles on four presidential Iowa caucus campaigns, said a good finish in the first-in-the-nation contest could mean the difference between a candidate losing all momentum going into the next round of primaries and caucuses or being seen as a major contender.

Iowa’s Importance

“If Joe Biden gets in this race, tell me who took second in Iowa,” Trippi said. “Or, tell me who defeated Joe Biden in Iowa.”

Trippi, who isn’t working with any presidential campaigns, said Buttigeg could benefit from Indiana’s relative proximity to Iowa as well as from the way he talks to voters.

“Don’t count out a guy from South Bend, Indiana, being able to connect with Iowans,” he said. “He does have some real advantages. They’re not obvious, but they’re real.”

Among those advantages, according to Buttigieg, is his executive experience running a city, his military background -- he served eight years in the Navy Reserve, including a six-month stint as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan while he was mayor -- and growing up in solidly Republican Indiana.

Red State

The curious circumstance of being an openly gay Democratic candidate from the same state as Vice President Mike Pence isn’t lost to him. “It might not be such a bad thing if people from redder states were some of the faces of Democratic values,” Buttigieg said in Greenville.

That resonated for Julian Mason of Florence, South Carolina. “I’ve spent my entire life as a Democrat in a red state and having someone speak to that was significant to me,” Mason said.

Buttigieg hews to parts of the current progressive line on a number of issues such as expanding the Supreme Court and doing away with the Electoral College. Yet while offering some support for proposals such as Medicare-for-all and a guaranteed income for the working class, he keeps his distance.

“Anyone in politics who lets the words Medicare-for-all escape their lips also has a responsibility to explain how we could actually get there,” he said at the CNN town hall. He said a preferable path might be “a Medicare-for-all who want it set-up.”

Trippi said Buttigeg could appeal to voters who are tired of the squabbles in Washington and want to see problems get solved on the local level. Even if he doesn’t win the nomination, Trippi said, he will be much in demand in the Democratic Party circles.

“People simply have to hear us,” Buttigieg said in Greenville. “The good news is when they do they seem to like us, and that’s how our momentum has grown.”

--With assistance from Arit John.

To contact the reporter on this story: Emma Kinery in Washington at ekinery@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net, John Harney

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