The Politician: How Pete Buttigieg became the Democrats’ charismatic breakout star

He’s a presidential candidate so polished he seems written for television. A millennial with a spotless academic record. He has hoovered up every available extracurricular point since childhood, and boasts a resume that’s practically perfect in every way. 

He’s a blast of minty fresh air in politics: fun at parties (he plays piano flawlessly), freakishly smart, gay. He sees the White House less as his goal, more his destiny. 

But while we’re talking about Pete Buttigieg — the Democratic wunderkind who, at 38, just squeezes into the definition of millennial, who edged ahead of boomer rivals Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren in the bellwether Iowa caucus vote on Monday — we could just as easily be speaking of Payton Hobart, the charismatic protagonist of Ryan Murphy’s 2019 Netflix hit The Politician. He is Buttigieg’s fictional doppelgänger. 

Payton Hobart in The Politician

America loves a TV president, you see. With politics now more downwind of culture than ever, it would surprise no one if Netflix proved very prescient when it comes to the 2020 US Presidential election.  

Buttigieg takes a selfie with supporters (Getty Images)

While Iowa is yet to declare a winner, this morning CNN reported that — with 97 per cent of the precincts declared — Buttigieg was ahead of second-place Sanders by a whisker: 26.2 per cent to 26.1 per cent of the vote. This is a landmark moment — being spoken of as the “Buttigieg bounce”. 

Anna Wintour and Pete Buttigieg at God’s Love We Deliver, Golden Heart Awards in New York City (Getty Images for Michael Kors)

On the campaign trail, Buttigieg speaks with both the authority of an intelligence officer who has toured Afghanistan and the twinkle of a pianist who has played with the South Bend Symphony Orchestra. He walks on stage to Panic! At The Disco’s hit High Hopes — supporters have a co-ordinated dance. When the hopeful announced to his supporters that it looked like he had come first, he visibly choked up. At a charity fundraiser in October, he shared a table with Anna Wintour, the editor of US Vogue and a powerful kingmaker for the Democrats. Already, the Barack Obama comparisons — a suave Midwesterner coming from nowhere to win the influential Iowa caucus — are being made.

Still, strictly, Buttigieg hasn’t exactly come from nowhere. He spent two terms as the youngest-ever mayor of a major US city: his native South Bend, Indiana. He was elected for the first time at 29, in 2011. Almost every one of its 100,000 or so inhabitants would greet Buttigieg on the streets as “Mayor Pete” — “Mayo Pete” has become a preferred nickname among critics who characterise him as a pasteurised politician. After being elected, he quickly set about reversing an economic decline in the northern Indiana city, Indeed, his brand is bolstered by familiarity. “One of the things we’ve found is that the more people know Pete, the more they like him, so it’s continuing to introduce him to folks,” said Chris Meagher, his campaign spokesman, told The Times in November. His, too, was one of the few names mentioned  to the New Yorker by Obama in 2016, during a discussion about the future of the Democratic Party.  

Wearing supporters’ badges (AFP via Getty Images)

Buttigieg is an embodiment of modern family values. He and his husband Chasten Buttigieg (né Glezman), 30, a school teacher, met through the dating app Hinge in 2015, just months after Pete Buttigieg had come out publicly. “I was well into adulthood before I was prepared to acknowledge the simple fact that I am gay,” he wrote at the time. 

Buttigieg with husband Chasten (AFP/Getty Images)

They quickly fell in love, with a shared  fondness for brunch spots an early indicator of compatibility. “Once I saw he was down for the Scotch egg, I knew it had a shot,” Buttigieg recalled to The New York Times. They married in 2018 in the Episcopal Church in South Bend, and the ceremony was streamed on YouTube (Buttigieg is sincere and pragmatic about his Christian faith). They have spoken happily of hoping to have children. They have dogs — Truman, a beagle Labrador mix, and Buddy, a one-eyed puggle — with huge Twitter followings. 

Meeting a young fan (Getty Images)

You can understand the onus on making the “Pete” brand relatable. Talk of an “American Emmanuel Macron” is faint praise, and critics have said he’s in the pocket of the elite (a red flag for some Democrats, wary of picking a nominee who cannot beat the incumbent President Trump). 

Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg, who overlapped with Buttigieg at Harvard, has privately recommended several potential hires to his presidential campaign (Buttigieg was one of Facebook’s first 300 users). 

He has also struggled to win over African-American voters, receiving less than 1 per cent of support from black Democrats in one 2019 poll. In 2012, he asked for the resignation of South Bend’s first black police chief amid a row over the illegal taping of officers’ telephone calls (the city was sued for racial discrimination); seven years later he was seen as reacting too slowly to the killing of an African-American man by a white police officer. A further unknown is whether America would vote for its first gay president.   

As a boy on holiday (AP)

Still, many fans see him as a boy wonder. The son of two University of Notre Dame professors, he won a $3,000 national essay writing contest in 2000, eulogising the “inspiring” Bernie Sanders, who he is now competing against. (Another plot point shared with The Politician, in which Payton has studied every POTUS from the “first television president” Ronald Reagan onwards to learn how to win).

A high school valedictorian, Buttigieg speaks eight languages: English, Norwegian, Maltese, Italian, French, Spanish, Dari, and Arabic. His father is an immigrant from Malta, hence a Maltese-Arabic surname which literally means “owner of chickens”. He learned Norwegian to read a favourite author in that language, and at a press conference he spoke with some Norwegian journalists in their native tongue.

Buttigieg also studied at Oxford, pictured in 1987  (Pembroke College Foundation)

As well as attending Harvard, he studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford (like Bill Clinton), at Pembroke College. “One of the toughest parts during that time,” he recalled, “was trying to ignore all the folks having fun singing and drinking.” He played in defence for the Pembroke football team, The Smurfs, rowed, and ran the college’s bar, where he started a whiskey library. He was entrusted with safeguarding the college master’s golden retrievers and piano, and is also reported to have boarded a cargo ship on the North Sea in order to focus on revising for his finals.

It wasn’t all plain sailing: he was ejected from his first economics tutorial for lack of preparation by his tutor, Dr Linda Yueh. This glowing CV appealed to recruiters at the management consultancy McKinsey, who snapped him up straight after university. 

Still, different qualities are needed to appeal to voters in modern America. “The obsession with his kind of ostentatious intelligence is deeply unserious and anti-democratic”, wrote the Leftist Jacobin magazine. “‘Smart’ is not going to save us, and fetishising its most conventional manifestations shores up bourgeois ideology and undermines the genuinely emancipatory politics of collective action.” Ooft. 

Does Buttigieg cut through in the manner of Obama, or is he destined to be cast as the unelectable elite? Know-it-all supporters turn up at rallies with helpful signs explaining the pronunciation of his surname, “It’s Pete BOOT-Edge-Edge” (T-shirts were also printed).   

Still, there’s a hybrid nu-folksy charm to Mayor Pete, a blend of traditional and progressive values that supporters hope can reach Republican, Democrat and purple voters alike. He’s a liberal who makes people think he’s a moderate, and has the gift of the gab. 

Supporters say he can appeal to a cross-section of voters. Policies include a proposal for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, universal child allowance of at least $2,000 per child, and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. He wants to rebalance the Supreme Court, introduce a carbon tax, and create a “buy-in” option to “create a natural glide-path to Medicare for All”. 

While the Left of the party have assailed his campaign’s willingness to accept donations from 40 billionaires, small donations have flooded in, too. In the 24 hours after his well-received performance in a CNN town hall last March, he raised about $600,000.

In January 2019, an Emerson College poll predicted zero per cent support in Iowa. Now he’s in the driving seat. And while Sanders is the favourite for the New Hampshire caucus next week, pollsters say the size of Buttigieg’s Iowa bounce is unpredictable. Do not adjust your sets.


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