Pete Buttigieg‘s birthday last year was a surprise — friends all arranged just so in his living room — but when he turned 38 a few weeks ago, the celebration was very different.
It was, for one, the first time he’d been home to South Bend, Indiana, since New Year’s. For two, it was the only time he planned to be there until after the middle of February.
Unlike with his 2019 party, Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, marked the occasion on Jan. 19 with a small dinner: his mom and his husband, Chasten.
It was, he says, “a treat just to be at the house, to be around the dogs, just by the fireplace and just chilling out.”
Because Pete Buttigieg is running for president — one of the four leading candidates to challenge President Donald Trump in November — and so his schedule the last year has very much not allowed him to be home in South Bend, where he was the mayor until January.
“I’d say it’s now a minority of my meals that are even at a table versus a vehicle or standing up,” Buttigieg tells PEOPLE. “You miss that: time spent with friends, just the basics of life. I’ve traded it for this exhilarating, exhausting, wonderful, demanding reality, but it’s just not normal life.”
A year ago, you probably did not know who Buttigieg was. Nine months ago, he and his husband were on the cover of TIME. Now, he is hoping to emerge victorious from Monday’s Iowa caucus — which begins the Democratic primary — as a kind of thesis statement on the politics of what is possible.
There are four people leading the primary right now, and Buttigieg doesn’t look much like the other three. He is basically half the age of former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and he launched his campaign last spring with a fraction of their name recognition, political networks and financial support.
His policy proposals are progressive, he takes pains to note, but less lofty (or less effective, depending on your view) than Warren and Sanders’, and he does not have the electoral track record of Biden. Voter surveys show he does not yet connect with people of color — core Democratic constituencies that would be critical for him to succeed after Iowa.
But he says, a lot and in different ways, I am something new.
He is a Midwesterner, born and raised, and a Navy veteran. A Harvard alum and a former Rhodes Scholar. He is a millennial, just barely, and would likely be the most digitally fluent commander-in-chief because he himself grew up around the internet. He is gay.
“I certainly still have that sense of how improbable this all is,” Buttigieg tells PEOPLE. “Again, that’s part of the point. I think, in an odd way, that’s also part of why we’re succeeding.”
The Iowa polls this year, given the crowd of candidates, have been volatile. For a time not too long ago, Buttigieg was at the top of them. While his national profile may lag, he is making an impression there — a frigid, sparsely populated, first-in-the-nation place that may just make history rallying around him.
In campaign mode, he talks about working to unify the country and the larger cycles of time. “We’ve just been locked in a certain way of doing things in Washington for the last 40 years or so,” he says. “I think it’s led to this kind of meltdown.”
He stresses what sets him apart. He has made much of his time as mayor, even of a relatively small town: the executive experience that gives him next to someone who is a senator in an arcane institution that, depending on the year, doesn’t do much of anything at all.
He also underlines his service with the Navy Reserves: the lessons it taught and how it changed him and the others he knew who were deployed in America’s interminable Middle East conflicts.
“Coming from a different place, literally as well as in terms of how I think and what I do all day, matches what the presidency calls for,” Buttigieg says.
He will talk about other things, too, if you ask.
He chafes, somewhat, at occasional headlines that he is not “emotional,” because he actually views himself in reverse: disciplined but deeply passionate. (He chokes up even watching the trailers before the movies, he insists — something about the “emotional simplicity” just gets him.)
Yes, he loves beef jerky (and Family Guy). Yes, he loves the board game Risk. He used to love Twitter, as much as anyone does, but had to cut back. The platform has its toxins.
He and Chasten — whose June 2018 marriage was covered by The New York Times with the headline “Pete Buttigieg Might Be President Someday. He’s Already Got the First Man.” — stay in touch throughout each day they are apart. They text and make a point to talk on the phone. If everything matches up, they FaceTime with their dogs, Buddy and Truman.
Chasten, a 30-year-old middle school teacher, regularly campaigns for his husband.
“He’s not somebody who I think felt that politics was for him or sought out the celebrity world by any stretch,” Buttigieg says. “But he’s also somebody that I think people just naturally take to because he’s a magnetic and wonderful person. In many ways, I think the things that he talks about, cares about, and lives as a teacher are the things that both politicians and people who produce movies and TV shows think about and talk about. It’s just more real with him, so I think people take to him for that reason.”
They first met on a dating app in 2015. Chasten caught Buttigieg’s eye and his wit (and smile) kept Buttigieg’s attention. They talked about Game of Thrones.
“He [Chasten] was a little skeptical about getting mixed up with a politician, and he asked, you know, ‘What does your future look like?’ And I told him,” Buttigieg said in a podcast interview last year, adding: “He reminds me of that now, and we talk about the crazy life that we have, because I don’t think any of us could’ve guessed even a year and a half ago that this was where life would take us.”
Sometimes, Buttigieg says, an older person, likely LGBTQ, will approach him at an event and be seemingly overcome with emotion. It’s almost like they are saying thank you. Or: at last.
“I can just tell when they come up and sometimes take my hand and they’re not able to speak that what they’re saying has to do with how they wish that something like this had been there when they were young, that they could have seen that,” Buttigieg says.
“Even Chasten and I feel that and talk about what it would have meant to 17 year-old us to see an out candidate running for president,” he says. “People have different ways of letting you know what you mean to them. Sometimes they put it in words, and sometimes they don’t have to.”
After nearly a year of campaigning, on Monday voters will begin to make their picks for who should face President Trump in November.
Buttigieg says that familiar thing about the future, whatever happens in Iowa: “one day at a time.” Of course he thinks about what would come next — the other states to contest, more debates, a bigger spotlight.
He says, a little jokingly, that he misses the days when he could relax in sweatpants with his husband and their dogs and some TV.
In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, two days after his most recent birthday, he was speaking to a few hundred people in the bottom of the very large Veterans Memorial Building. He was making his usual speech, pressing his usual case for the presidency.
At the end, after all the cheering and questions, the crowd had a gift for Buttigieg.
Together, they began to sing.