It took nine months after South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg kicked off his long-shot Democratic presidential campaign before he landed his first spate of Indiana endorsements.
Ten Hoosier mayors – Tom McDermott of Hammond, Dave Kitchell of Logansport, Brent Bascom of Rising Sun, Gay Ann Harney of Rockport, Ron Meer of Michigan City, John Hamilton of Bloomington, Gabriel Greer of Peru, Greg Goodnight of Kokomo, Ted Ellis of Bluffton and Hugh Wirth of Oakland City – were part of a group of more than 50 mayors to endorse this upstart presidential campaign.
Beyond his fellow mayors, Buttigieg hasn’t picked up much support from the Democratic Indiana political establishment. U.S. Reps. Pete Visclosky and André Carson aren’t on board, nor is former senator Joe Donnelly, who attended Buttigieg’s campaign kickoff last April. Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett was also there, but didn’t endorse this past week, presumably concentrating on his own reelection bid.
The 10 Hoosier mayors and 40 of their national counterparts explained their endorsement: “We have watched Mayor Pete over the last eight years as his steady and inspired leadership has revitalized his city. It was no surprise to us when his constituents reelected him with 80% of the vote. Pete has transformed South Bend, and now he is showing what American leadership can and should be in the years ahead. That kind of empathetic leadership is desperately needed in the Oval Office.”
We are now about five months before the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary and so, you may ask, does Mayor Pete have a snowball’s chance in a Nelson’s Golden Glo fire pit to actually win the nomination?
I would characterize his chances as low, but not impossible, particularly here in the Donald Trump era. He’s running fifth in Iowa with a Real Clear Politics polling composite at 7.5%, and fourth in New Hampshire with 8%. The national polling composite has him fourth at 5.8%, trailing Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Biden has led this race throughout, consistently polling in the range of 28% to 30%, though Warren is drawing Trump-like crowds in the 20,000 range.
Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster who polls for NBC/Wall Street Journal, cautions about the impact of early polls. “What we see in September isn’t what we see in December,” Hart said.
The key in these kinds of political marathons is to peak at the right time, and in this race, you want to be drawing big crowds and rising in the polls in the next couple of months. Buttigieg has raised a historic amount of money – north of $30 million – and has been dramatically staffing up in the early primary states.
He has also been a policy machine, releasing extensive white paper proposals on health care (“Medicare for all who want it”), his Douglass Plan to take on centuries of ingrained racism, as well as others on rural health and poverty, and disaster relief. His foreign policy speech at Indiana University early last summer would have made Richard Lugar proud. So he has the policy chops and intellectual credibility to be in the conversation.
The surprising thing about this race is it’s the septuagenarians (Warren, Sanders and Biden, who told us about listening to his “record player”) leading the pack. Buttigieg’s JFK-era plea of “passing the torch to a new generation” simply hasn’t materialized to date. A Fox News Poll this week revealed that many Democratic voters simply want to nominate someone who can defeat President Trump and not necessarily open new policy vistas. There is still time for that dynamic to change, with former President Jimmy Carter saying this past week he didn’t believe folks over 80 should be working in the Oval Office.
There is also modern history that plays into Buttigieg’s wheelhouse. The most recent Democratic presidents – John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – were all young progressives when they made it to the White House, all on their first try. The track record for the so-called “establishment” Democrats – Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Al Gore and John Kerry – isn’t very good. All of them lost.
Buttigieg has some significant obstacles in his way. In the recent NBC/Wall Street Journal, he was drawing only 3% among African American voters, and he is doing even worse with that demographic in the third state to vote, South Carolina. Buttigieg still hasn’t fully recovered from the police action shooting in South Bend involving a white officer and a black man last June.
And there’s a new controversy, the 2,200 fetal remains found on the Illinois property of the late abortion Dr. Ulrich Klopfer, who operated a clinic in South Bend. Buttigieg has introduced a theological component to his rationale of his candidacy, which is rare for a Democrat, and the Klopfer case creates a challenge for him on that front.
Mayor Buttigieg has performed credibly during the first three debates, but he kind of gets lost in the 10-candidate stage. He would have a better shot if, before the first caucuses and primaries, he ends up on stage with the septuagenarians, where he could make a sharper generational contrast. He may not get that chance.
I must also remind you of my 2016 mantra here in the Trump era: Anything can happen.