On a brisk September morning in New Hampshire, Pete Buttigieg leaned against the wall of a newly opened campaign office and contemplated just how far he'd come in his bid to become president. It had been only in January, he told me, that his entire long-shot-campaign operation had consisted of, as he put it, “five people sitting in a room in South Bend” whose number one job was “letting people know we exist.” Now Buttigieg typically had twice that many people in just his traveling entourage—a retinue of aides, videographers, private-security agents, and others trailing in his wake as he crisscrossed the country. His existence was sufficiently well-known that his campaign events now drew crowds in the hundreds and sometimes thousands.
On this morning he was in the quaint town of Conway to open up his 11th campaign office in the first-in-the-nation primary state. Later that day, he'd open the 12th, in the mill town of Berlin. By the end of the month, he would have 20 offices up and running in Iowa, which will hold the first-in-the-nation caucus. Each one was staffed with cadres of young people who'd uprooted their lives and moved to new towns to work as campaign organizers.
Outfitted in “BOOT EDGE EDGE” T-shirts, they pledged honor to what Buttigieg called his Rules of the Road—a list of campaign principles, freshly stenciled on the wall of the Conway campaign office, that ran from traditional corporate-speak (“respect,” “teamwork,” “responsibility”) to millennial aspirations (“joy,” “belonging”). “It kind of started out on a napkin. A proverbial napkin—I think it was actually a Google doc,” Buttigieg explained. “But I wanted to make sure that as this grows, we don't lose the character of the campaign.”
To the 37-year-old candidate, the most meaningful—and in some respects most baffling—sign of that growth was those youthful campaign workers. “I'm not that removed in years from their experience, so I think I'm particularly sympathetic to them,” Buttigieg said. In his white button-up shirt and jeans, he didn't even look that different from some of his troops. “But I'm also humbled by them,” Buttigieg went on. “Maybe I shouldn't be as a candidate at this level, but there's still a part of me that's just amazed that young people are willing to turn their lives upside down and work this hard for this cause.”
That the project of electing Buttigieg president has become a plausible one, much less in some quarters a cause, is the most surprising political development of 2019. It's surprising, of course, because Buttigieg is the not-yet-40-year-old mayor of the fourth-largest city in the country's 17th-largest state—a man who started the race as a virtual unknown.
In the weeks after his New Hampshire visit, as Buttigieg shifted into a more moderate lane and rode a strong debate performance, his potential path to the nomination began to seem increasingly viable, to the point that some in the Democratic establishment were turning away from Joe Biden and toward Buttigieg as the candidate they hoped could defeat their twin bêtes noires—Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. By mid-November, a Des Moines Register poll found him in first place in Iowa—16 points ahead of where he was just two months ago.
Indeed, Buttigieg has become so recognizable, so fast, that it's almost easy to forget just how unusual his arrival was—or gloss over just how deeply his impact may be felt for years ahead. It's how Mayor Pete has fashioned himself into a serious contender for the White House that has made his campaign so consequential. Embracing his age as a reason for, rather than an obstacle to, his bid, Buttigieg has articulated a generational vision of change that's been particularly welcome in a race that has been dominated by a quartet of septuagenarians. “There is no such thing as an honest politics that revolves around the word again,” Buttigieg said when he formally entered the race in April. “It's not just about winning an election—it's about winning an era.”
Granted, Buttigieg is hardly the first presidential candidate to run as the voice of a new generation. But his is a sui generis voice—one that's so particular that he's defied easy stereotyping. (His critics would go further, wondering who Buttigieg really is.) His is the voice of an earnest Midwesterner—and devout Episcopalian—who talks of bringing jobs back to the Rust Belt. But it's also the voice of a Rhodes scholar whiz kid who speaks seven foreign languages and who, after Oxford, worked both as a McKinsey consultant and an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve, deployed in Afghanistan. Finally, of course, it's the voice of an openly gay man—something we've never heard in presidential politics at this level.
Buttigieg, who came out in 2015 and married his husband, Chasten, last year, has been wary of making too much of his sexual identity. Those around him feared that it might become the only thing for which he was known.
“I thought early on that some folks might try to limit Pete's candidacy to his identity only,” Mike Schmuhl, Buttigieg's campaign manager, told me when I visited him at the campaign's headquarters in South Bend in July. “But we've built a campaign where Pete being gay is just who he is. And it's encouraging how people have accepted that, but it's not the driving force of his candidacy to be president.”
Buttigieg endured the loss of his father as he formed his exploratory committee. “Obviously,” he says, “I wish he got to see this.”
At the same time, Buttigieg hasn't sought to downplay his sexual identity. When Chasten joined him onstage at his campaign kickoff speech in April, they kissed. It was something countless straight politicians have done with their spouses, but to have a gay politician do it with his spouse, as Tim Miller, a gay Republican political strategist, later wrote, was “a signal to people out there who, without it, might not have the confidence to win their internal wars.” And in a Democratic debate in September, when the candidates were each asked to describe a moment of personal resilience in the face of a professional setback, Buttigieg—who'd become the mayor of South Bend at 29, without ever mentioning his sexual identity—unspooled an answer that was brand-new to a presidential-debate stage. “I had to wonder whether just acknowledging who I was, was going to be the ultimate career-ending professional setback,” he said. “[I] realized that you only get to live one life. And I was not interested in not knowing what it was like to be in love any longer, so I just came out.” The result of all this has been a candidacy unlike any other in the 2020 presidential field.
Back in his campaign office in Conway, Buttigieg spoke about the good he believes his campaign is doing before even the first vote has been cast. “It was clear to me that how we did things was really going to matter,” he told me, “because one of the big things at stake in this presidency we're living through right now is not just all of the things that are being done but how it's being done. That's half of the challenge. And so it strikes me that long before you actually are given power in government, you can already do a lot of the things that need to be done.”
Earlier that day, he'd addressed a crowd of supporters in a gravel parking lot. Standing on an unsteady wooden box, he beseeched them to rise above the malaise of our current politics. “As bleak as the moment is, as tough as things are, as hard as our politics has become, I also come to this with a great deal of hope,” Buttigieg said. “It's the hope of being able to look back not that many years from now at the moment we're living in and actually be proud of what we did to change it.”
When he was done with his speech, he posed for selfies and made small talk. “Thanks for using big words,” one young man told Buttigieg. An older man, one half of a gay couple, clasped Buttigieg's hand: “I want to thank you for what you're doing for our community.”
Like most politicians, Buttigieg draws great meaning from—and imputes just as much significance to—these rope-line encounters. But in his case, none of it seems exaggerated. Earlier this summer, at a house party in Muscatine, Iowa, Buttigieg met a 16-year-old girl who told him that, thanks to his campaign, she no longer felt ashamed and could finally be herself at school. He thought he knew where the conversation was going.
“Chasten and I constantly encounter people who let us know what it means and talk about how us being out there helped them come out,” he told me. But then the girl said something he didn't expect. She told Buttigieg that because of his campaign, she no longer felt ashamed of her autism diagnosis. Suddenly, being different wasn't quite as scary. The moment inspired a realization about the progress Buttigieg was making. “It means that we are lifting up people without even necessarily knowing how we do it,” Buttigieg says. “Now this campaign is getting somewhere.”
For all the excitement last winter that accompanied Buttigieg's lightning-strike entrance into the 2020 campaign, he was quietly wrestling with something even more profound at the time. His father, Joseph, was dying.
A professor of English at Notre Dame, Joseph Buttigieg encouraged both Pete's love of Notre Dame football and his interest in politics, taking him, as a boy, to the stadium to watch the Irish play on Saturdays and to the South Bend airport to gaze at Air Force One when Ronald Reagan paid a visit to the town. When, in 2008, Pete moved back to South Bend, he bought a place just down the street from his father and mother, Jennifer, a former Notre Dame faculty member.
He had dinner with them on Sundays, and it was at one of those meals that he told them he was gay. “I found myself, a grown man and the mayor of a sizable city, sweating through my palms and pushing remnants of ice cream around with a spoon while working up the will to change the subject of conversation from an upcoming council meeting to the fact that their son, their only child, was attracted to men,” Buttigieg recalls in his 2019 memoir, Shortest Way Home. He says his parents were immediately supportive.
Joseph, naturally, had been intimately involved in Pete's deliberations about whether or not to take the audacious step of running for president. But as the time drew near for Pete to embark on his campaign, Joseph's health grew worse. The family has said very little about the ailment, but by January, Joseph was in an intensive care unit, hooked up to a ventilator. Pete and Jennifer talked to Joseph's doctors about medical treatments that might give him more time to witness his son's presidential campaign, but they ultimately decided against them.
On January 23, Pete announced that he was forming an exploratory committee for a presidential bid. Four days later, Joseph passed away. “He saw that that happened. He was able to respond to it. And I'm glad he got to see it,” Pete told me in September. “To be honest, Dad might have held on a little bit just to see that first launch.”
He added, almost unnecessarily, that it would have been nice for his father to have witnessed the incredible reaction his candidacy touched off. “Obviously, I wish he got to see this.”
Out of the gate, Pete employed a talk-to-anyone media strategy, making himself available for interviews with everyone from the crew at Morning Joe to Ellen DeGeneres to the musician Ben Folds, for his podcast. Before long, Buttigieg's media appearances began to register—and resonate—with Democratic activists and voters. In early March, Buttigieg traveled to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for what was billed as a meet and greet at a bar. “We got there, and my political director—at the time there were probably 10 of us on the whole team—came out with a grin on his face,” Buttigieg recalls. “He said, ‘It's not a meet and greet anymore. It's a rally.’ There were 400 people. It was one of those moments where you realized we were onto something.”
Buttigieg's true breakthrough came two days later, in Austin, where he appeared at a CNN town hall. “We knew it could be a big moment,” Buttigieg recalls. “It was the first time I had an hour of national television to myself.”
But neither Buttigieg nor anyone in his orbit could expect what ultimately transpired. Wearing what was quickly becoming his trademark attire—suit pants, white shirt, blue tie, no jacket—Buttigieg stood onstage and expertly handled a set of increasingly difficult questions. How could he think he was ready to be president? Buttigieg's answer: “I have more years of government experience under my belt than the president. That's a low bar. I know that. I've also got more years of executive government experience than the vice president.” By the end of the hour, Buttigieg was no longer a long shot.
Over the next few months, Buttigieg's star rose, his campaign coffers fattened, and his place in the polls improved. In a Democratic field dominated by familiar—not to mention old—Washington faces, he was a breath of fresh air from flyover country. At the same time, his presentation was as slick as that of any veteran politician, reassuring supporters—including a growing group of Wall Street and Silicon Valley donors—that he wasn't out of his depth. Little things, like video of Buttigieg speaking Norwegian to a reporter from Norway (he'd learned the language in order to read the untranslated works of a Norwegian author he admired) only burnished his legend.
But then came another campaign turning point—this one in the wrong direction. On June 16, a white South Bend police officer shot and killed Eric Logan, an African American man. The officer, whose body camera was not turned on, claimed that Logan was breaking into cars and raised a knife when he was approached; Logan's family said an injustice had occurred. The family filed a lawsuit (still pending) alleging excessive deadly force and discrimination. Buttigieg had put South Bend at the center of his presidential campaign, casting his mayorship as the feel-good story of a hometown boy who—after stints at the world's finest schools and in the trenches of corporate consulting—returned to his roots and, through the things he'd learned while away, helped turn around the Rust Belt city's declining fortunes by installing things like “smart streets” and “smart sewers” and partnering with Notre Dame to create new jobs. At his presidential campaign's kickoff speech, held in an old Studebaker factory that was now a technology hub, he'd declared, “We've changed our trajectory and shown a path forward for communities like ours.”
But the turnaround had not spread to all parts of South Bend, and especially in the city's African American community, there remained a good deal of skepticism about and some hostility toward Buttigieg.
“When Mayor Pete talks about ‘smart streets’ and how we've got to bring the best and the brightest to South Bend,” Oliver Davis, an African American member of the South Bend Common Council, told me, “it's an elitist kind of conversation. It's almost saying if you already live here, you're not the best and the brightest.”
The greatest tension centered around public safety. In his first months in office, Buttigieg had demoted the city's first African American police chief, Darryl Boykins, after learning Boykins was under federal investigation for taping officers' phone conversations. (The U.S. Attorney's Office ultimately decided not to bring charges against Boykins; he sued the city over his demotion, alleging discrimination, and settled for $50,000.) Since then, relations between the city's African American community and its police force had worsened.
It was against this backdrop that the reaction to Eric Logan's death played out. Buttigieg canceled his campaign events and left the trail to rush back to South Bend. There he was greeted with an outpouring of rage. At a protest outside the South Bend Police Department headquarters, Logan's mother confronted Buttigieg, telling him, “Y'all ain't doing a damn thing about me or my son or none of these people out here.” Another protester thrust a bullhorn at Buttigieg until the mayor finally grabbed it and addressed the crowd. Two days later, at a town hall event in a high school auditorium, Buttigieg sat behind a desk on a stage while some African American members of the crowd jeered him. By the end of the weekend, it was clear that his rocket-like ascent had flatlined—and for months after that moment in June, Buttigieg struggled to get some of his campaign mojo back.
Buttigieg knew that his handling of the shooting would be closely scrutinized. While he was attending the demonstration outside police headquarters, trying to console those who were hurt, he was weighing a million different things. He told me he knew, for instance, that if he took the bullhorn from the protesters, it would make for a terrible image for his campaign—leading to pictures that could be (and indeed were) misconstrued as depicting the mayor shouting them down. “You're always thinking a little bit about that,” he told me a few weeks after the incident, when I met with him in South Bend. “And I think early on I resisted that way of thinking because I hate superficiality, but often, again, the symbol is the deed, sometimes. But the most important thing is showing up there at all.”
Similarly, at the town hall meeting, the president of the local chapter of the NAACP had recommended to Buttigieg that he not allow questions from the audience for fear that the session would quickly devolve. But Buttigieg ignored that advice, even though he knew that the NAACP president was right about what would happen. “Going into a town hall to have your ass handed to you is not something that is wise from a campaign perspective,” Buttigieg told me, “but was somewhat necessary from a community perspective in order for us to move on to the more constructive phases of talking about solutions.”
Indeed, after the events in South Bend, Buttigieg became more introspective about race and began talking about it in a way few white politicians do. He wanted to reframe the conversation, he said, around more holistic solutions. In July, he announced what he's called the Douglass Plan, which would attack racist politics in the health care, education, and criminal-justice systems. But the plan has done little to win over African-American voters. A Quinnipiac poll in mid-November found that in South Carolina he had zero percent support among black Democrats—a key demographic in that state’s crucial primary. Adding insult to injury, The Intercept reported that three prominent South Carolina African-American politicians complained that the Buttigieg campaign had implied in a press release that they’d endorsed Mayor Pete when, in fact, they’d endorsed only the Douglass Plan; and that a photo of a black woman kneeling and talking to a child that the campaign had used on its website to promote the Douglass Plan was a stock photo of a Kenyan woman. The campaign removed the photo from the website and blamed the mistake on a contractor.
When we spoke in July, Buttigieg mentioned to me that he had lost “a lot of my illusions about color blindness here at home in South Bend.” He added, “You can't take a racist policy and replace it with a neutral policy and expect everything to get better on its own. I think people believe that. I think at one time I would have believed that.”
Democrats tend to win, Buttigieg says, with fresh voices—not someone who's been “marinating in Washington.”
The question Buttigieg now faces seems clear. “What's Mayor Pete's second act?” asks Dan Pfeiffer, a former White House aide to Barack Obama. “The first act was ‘I'm Mayor Pete,’ and it launched him into the stratosphere, but what comes after that?”
Buttigieg's plan to win the nomination appears to be a straightforward one. Although he began his campaign with the kind of bold talk that made the hearts of liberal activists flutter—calling for the elimination of the Electoral College and the expansion of the Supreme Court to 15 justices, so as to end its conservative majority—he has now cast himself as the centrist alternative to Biden. As such, he's training most of his fire on Warren, attacking her over her support for Medicare for All and her refusal, as of October, to say how she's going to pay for it. After flaying Warren over this in the October Democratic debate, Buttigieg went on CNN the next day to hit her again: “[L]ast night she was more specific and forthcoming about the number of selfies she's taken than about how this plan is going to be funded.” (In November, Warren released her Medicare For All financing plan.)
As for his own health care plan, Buttigieg calls it Medicare for All Who Want It, which allows for employer-sponsored and individual private health insurance. But even as he moves into the centrist lane, Buttigieg likely knows that he can't be seen as being too moderate. When I told him, for instance, that I thought he was trying to get to the right of Sanders and Warren with the plan, he rejected the idea. “This would be the most ambitious thing done to American health care in the postwar era,” he insisted. It's that type of big—or at least big-ish—thinking, combined with his youth, he argues, that makes him more electable than Biden.
“Every time Democrats have succeeded in the last 50 years, it's been with a new-generation figure who's not been marinating in Washington for a long time,” he told me. “Every time we've tried to go with the kind of safe, established, been-here-for-a-long-time kind of figure, we have come up short. This isn't just a pattern. This is an iron, unbroken law going back to the '60s.”
Buttigieg's rivals, and even some of his admirers, have faulted him for becoming, after his initial success, too conservative in both his policies and his performances. “It's easy when you're a polling asterisk to run like the wind,” notes Pfeiffer, “but the closer you get to the White House, the more risk-averse you get.” At the beginning of his campaign, Buttigieg liked to tell Democrats that “it's about time to stop worrying what the Republicans will say” and that they should “just stand up for the right policy, go out there, and defend it.” But in September, after fellow candidate Beto O'Rourke proposed a mandatory buyback of AR-15s and AK-47s, Buttigieg blasted the idea as a strategic overreach that Republicans would pounce on. In response, O'Rourke accused Buttigieg of representing “a kind of politics that is focused on poll testing and focus group driving and triangulating and listening to consultants.”
“I think you always have the most to offer in the sphere that you're both of and not of,” Buttigieg said. “Part of what I had to offer South Bend was that I had been in other worlds too.”
Whether that's true or not, there is part of Buttigieg's pitch that undoubtedly boils down to his identity as the smartest guy in the room. His intelligence is obvious (and impressive) on the debate stage, and there are occasions when his big brain is even endearing. The most excited I ever saw Buttigieg in my time with him was when I steered the conversation toward the late Sacvan Bercovitch—the American Studies scholar who wrote about the Puritan tradition in American politics and for whom Buttigieg served as an assistant when he attended Harvard. These were the sorts of intellectual weeds Buttigieg seemed thrilled to wade into. I asked him what Bercovitch would have made of President Trump. “Wow, that's a great question,” Buttigieg said, before ruminating thoughtfully for several minutes. (For all my fellow Bercovitch dorks, Buttigieg's conclusion: “The Puritans were apocalyptic, but in a utopian way. Trump is apocalyptic in a much darker way. And so I think in the end he's an outlier in that tradition.”)
And yet, for all his modesty, displays of humbleness, and, as he puts it, “kind of militant sense of Midwestern identity,” Buttigieg's eager intelligence can read to some as a bit performative—and not just when he's speaking Norwegian and flaunting his piano chops. When I met with him a few weeks after the police shooting, we naturally talked about race. In the middle of our discussion, Buttigieg noted, “I keep going back to this quote I found from Baldwin.” He paused. “Let me find it.”
He reached into his leather briefcase, sitting nearby, and produced a tiny notebook that was filled with the candidate's handwritten jottings. “I was reunited with [the quote] a few weeks ago,” he continued. “It was wasted on me in college but now is really striking.”
He proceeded to read James Baldwin's words aloud: “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”
He closed the notebook, appearing satisfied. Yes, the quote was insightful and timely—but of course, I knew it would be as soon as he reached for it. In some ways it seemed as if the presidential candidate was still the eager (and eager-to-please) high school student who told his teacher Julie Chismar that he wanted to learn a language for every continent.
Which only raises the question of what, exactly, Buttigieg thinks all his smarts will help him accomplish as president. Unlike Biden—and more like Sanders and Warren—Buttigieg does not believe that simply getting Trump out of the White House will fix what ails the United States. Instead he believes that Trump's presidency is a symptom of what's wrong with America—namely a system and a politics so broken that Americans felt it “needed to be disrupted” by putting someone like Trump in the White House. Nonetheless, when you consider that Buttigieg is a product of some of the very same elite institutions whose failures and shortcomings paved the way for Trump, it's reasonable to ask why he believes he's qualified to fix things. Why would a man who worked for McKinsey and who was educated at Harvard be the person to fix the mess those types of places create?
When I posed that question to Buttigieg, he initially tried to create some distance between himself and the laundry list on his C.V. “I think in life you always have the most to offer in the sphere that you're both of and not of,” he said. “In other words, I'm a product of South Bend, but part of what I had to offer to South Bend was that I had been in other worlds too. I'm part of a lot of institutions that have a strong brand name, but a lot of what I brought to them was that I wasn't kind of soaked in that world.”
But then Buttigieg rose to their defense. “This frustration with institutions has built even into a kind of suspicion of knowledge and expertise and science, and that part I don't think is valid at all,” he said, “because one of the biggest problems we have right now is a departure from fact, as one of the things that we should all be able to get around. Respecting scientific discovery should not be a politically contested thing.”
He went on: “Who's the bigger problem in the world right now? A place like Harvard that's figured out a way that if you're a low- or middle-income student and you get in, you don't even pay to go there, and has produced a lot of the kind of scientific knowledge that's powering our advancements? Or an elite figure like Donald Trump, who literally sits on gold-plated furniture, stiffs workers, and relishes the fact that he's wealthy and you're not, and got his start in adult life using that privilege to avoid military service? Let's talk about exactly which flavor of elite we ought to be mad at right now.”
When I countered that the divide between Harvard and Trump was not so neat—that in fact Trump's son-in-law and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner had apparently bought his way into the school and was a year ahead of Buttigieg there—Buttigieg replied: “The problem is not what Harvard did to Jared Kushner. It's what he brought with him through Harvard out into the world, including the White House.”
By October, some Buttigieg critics were wondering about his connection to another Harvard contemporary: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Unlike Warren and Sanders, Buttigieg has struck a far more conciliatory tone toward Silicon Valley, where he enjoys deep financial support. When I spoke to him in July, he defended Zuckerberg, with whom he's friendly, insisting that the Facebook founder is someone who had “good intentions” but who was part of “a whole generation of tech people who…are making policy and they're not equipped to make policy. They're making public policy with none of the accountability and, I think they would say, with none of the apparatus that's required.”
I noted that this was by Zuckerberg’s own design—that Facebook had vigorously fought regulation. “Sure, that’s what they’re going to do,” Buttigieg said. “That’s why there has to be a democratic counterweight to all that,” As for the political and cultural upheaval Facebook has wrought, Buttigieg insisted that Zuckerberg “is trying to fix those problems.” Was Zuckerberg attempting to solve them because they were problems? Or because they threatened Facebook’s bottom line? “Probably both,” Buttigieg said.
It's another duality that is the central premise of Buttigieg's candidacy: that his combination of rootedness and worldliness can solve the country's problems and heal its divisions. Ideally he'd like to do that as our next president, but if that's not in the cards in 2021, he'd almost certainly be happy doing it as vice president or a cabinet secretary. At 37, he has a lot more time to make another run for the White House. And if Buttigieg's performance in this campaign has taught us anything, it's that he promises to be a force to be reckoned with for some time. If, that is, our politics remain hospitable to people with his unique talents.
Near the close of his stump speech, Buttigieg often asks: “Are you ready not to go on with this president's reality show? Are you ready to join with members of your communities in picking up the remote and changing the channel to something better?”
In making this pitch, Buttigieg is betting that Americans still want something better—that they are not so distrustful of our institutions and our leaders and those institutions' and leaders' ability (or inability) to solve their problems that they've frankly given up on them and instead want a president from whom they expect nothing more than entertainment and the ability to antagonize the people they dislike and resent.
As we stood in his empty campaign office in Conway, Buttigieg said that he understood that feeling. “You can't blame people,” he said, “because as long as I've been alive the political system really hasn't delivered for us.”
He paused, as if to think about what he'd just conceded—and what it meant for right now and for the future.
“But the point is,” he finally said, “it can, and more importantly, it has to.” He gave it a little more thought. “Or we're screwed.”
Jason Zengerle is a GQ correspondent.
A earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Buttigieg campaign had touted the endorsements of several politicians in South Carolina. The politicians had endorsed Buttigieg's Douglass Plan, not the mayor's presidential candidacy.
A version of this story originally appeared in the December/January 2020 issue with the title “The Audacity of Pete.”
Originally Appeared on GQ