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He made the announcement before a crowd of supporters in South Bend, Indiana, where the Harvard grad, Navy veteran and corporate analyst had been the mayor until January.
The first major openly gay presidential candidate and the first openly gay candidate to win a presidential nominating contest, Buttigieg, 38, was the campaign cycle’s breakout: an unknown 12 months ago who triumphed at the Iowa caucus (albeit by a razor-thin and controversial margin) and came in a close second place in the New Hampshire primary.
“I certainly still have that sense of how improbable this all is,” Buttigieg told PEOPLE in January. “Again, that’s part of the point. I think, in an odd way, that’s also part of why we’re succeeding.”
But that strength did not carry him far enough.
Buttigieg placed third at the Nevada caucus last week and then came in a more distant fourth in Saturday’s South Carolina primary, failing even to earn delegates in the latter vote.
“Today is a moment of truth,” he said Sunday. “After a year of going everywhere, meeting everyone, defying every expectation, seeking every vote, the truth is that the path has narrowed to a close — for our candidacy if not for our cause.”
He continued: “We have a responsibility to consider the effect of remaining in this race any further. Our goal has always been to help unify Americans to defeat Donald Trump and to win the era for our values. And so we must recognize that at this point in the race the best way to keep faith with those goals and ideals is to step aside and help bring our party and our country together.”
Elsewhere in his remarks, Buttigieg reflected on the importance of representation — what he meant to someone he might never even meet.
In a viral moment during the Iowa caucus, a woman was recorded saying she wanted to take her vote back after learning Buttigieg was gay. Weeks later, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh said American voters weren’t ready to elect a gay man president.
“We sent a message to every kid out there wondering if whatever marks them out as different means they are somehow destined to be less than — to see that someone who once felt that exact same way can become a leading American presidential candidate with his husband at his side,” Buttigieg said.
He was introduced by his husband, middle-school teacher Chasten, who left his job last year to campaign for Buttigieg.
“After falling in love with Pete, Pete got me to believe in myself again,” Chasten, 30, told the crowd. “And I told Pete to run because I knew there were other kids sitting out there in this country who needed to believe in themselves, too.”
Buttigieg’s exit narrows the 2020 field even further and, to many observers, leaves the race essentially to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who won in New Hampshire and Nevada (and came in second in Iowa), and former Vice President Joe Biden, whose double-digit victory in South Carolina revived his campaign.
On Sunday, Buttigieg took an implicit swipe at Sanders’ platform — bold or risky, depending on the view — but did not endorse another candidate by name. Buttigieg said his supporters should look to those who could lead a successful Democratic majority.
Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg will first be on the ballot on so-called “Super Tuesday,” in two days, after unusually choosing to bypass the early voting states.
Billionaire Tom Steyer also left the race this weekend, in the hours after South Carolina’s primary results came in showing him in third.