Two days before Thanksgiving, the six-word phrase “Pete Buttigieg Is A Lying MF” was trending on Twitter. The line had been cribbed from The Root’s Michael Harriot, who had published a post by the same name the previous evening. In it, Harriot, a black writer, excoriated the Democratic candidate for past remarks in which Buttigieg contended many low-income minority children didn’t have “someone who they know personally who testifies to the value of education."
Harriot’s post quickly went viral. But that same day, Pete Buttigieg looked calm. Standing in front of a mostly white audience at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, he had some reason to be. A few weeks before, the Des Moines Register had announced Buttigieg had shot up to first place in its latest poll of Democratic voters in the critical caucus state, a surge that once seemed unlikely for a mayor from South Bend, Indiana. Wearing slacks and a white Oxford shirt with the sleeves rolled halfway up his forearms, the Democratic candidate made his case for the presidency. Towards the end of his 12-minute speech, he started to discuss his so-called “Douglass Plan” to address U.S. racial inequality.
“Everybody has a stake in this,” he said. “And I’m talking about this to majority-white audiences too, because this entire country is diminished as long as we allow our economy, our criminal and legal system, health, housing, and our democracy itself to be a different experience for people of color in the United States.”
While a certain contingent of the Democratic Party raged over Buttigieg’s past remarks elsewhere, the people in Storm Lake largely seemed to eat up what Buttigieg was serving on the topics of systemic racism, gun violence, and global warming. But even in one of Iowa’s more diverse cities, there were few people of color in the crowd, and during the question-and-answer portion of the event no one pressed him on the issue Harriot had raised.
Buttigieg’s inability to connect with minority voters thus far this election cycle has received a great deal of media attention. Among black Americans, he is polling around 2 percent, according to one recent Quinnipiac poll. Long-standing racial issues resulting from his tenure as South Bend’s mayor continue to follow him, like his administration’s decision to demolish houses, which negatively affected minority homeowners, and what was seen as his inefficacy in the wake of a white police officer shooting a black man. The candidate and his campaign’s gaffes haven’t helped much either, as when he admitted on a North Carolina campaign stop how little he knew about de facto school segregation in his own city, or when the Douglass Plan’s webpage included a stock photo of a Kenyan woman.
Less remarked upon has been the growing support he enjoys among white voters, especially in the heavily white and critical early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, where Buttigieg has recently been leading in the polls, or close to doing so. Nationally, white Democrats love Buttigieg too. A late November poll by Quinnipiac found Buttigieg to be the most popular choice among white Democrats, with roughly equal support among white people with and without college degrees. That support dipped slightly in early December, though it remained high relative to his support among people of color, especially when compared to other frontrunners. A separate recent poll by SurveyUSA showed Buttigieg’s support among middle-class Democrats doubling in a month, placing him just behind Joe Biden.
Though the term “identity politics” is often used to analyze minority voters’ preferences in the United States, questions of self-identification are no less important to the white voting block. Ashley Jardina, a professor of political science at Duke University, established in her book White Identity Politics that 30 percent to 40 percent of white Americans now identify with their whiteness in a politically meaningful way. That sense of identity doesn’t always necessarily overlap with overtly racist ideas, but it can nonetheless influence white people’s thought process, subconscious or others. The New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones has argued that when Democrats say they “need to win suburban voters, they need to go after suburban voters, that there's a silent ‘white’ in front of that statement.”
Why, exactly, Buttigieg specifically appeals to white people in particular is harder to lock down, or at least get political operatives, rival campaigns, or basically anyone to discuss. Few of the people VICE reached out to were even willing to broach the topic.
“Pete is offering a safe choice—white, male but young and LGBTQ,” said Jess Morales Rocketto, an activist with the Domestic Workers Alliance. “He uses the rhetoric of wokeness but not the analysis [of it] in his economic policy. He’s offering ‘World’s Best Grandson’ energy, and I can see how that is very appealing to primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.”
Buttigieg is in a slightly similar position to the one Sen. Elizabeth Warren found herself in this summer—high support among white Democrats, low support among Democrats of color. But even if Warren hadn’t won over Democrats of color at that point—she has since then—the candidate had secured the support of a large number of prominent activists and strategists of color in a way Buttigieg show little sign of doing this campaign cycle.
For some, Buttigieg’s particular brand of millennial whiteness has become something bordering on a meme, complete with a nickname: “Mayo Pete.” When a video of his campaign’s choreographed dance to Panic! At The Disco’s pop hit “High Hopes” reached the internet, it seemed to say something larger about the candidate to those who deride him. The straight-laced, well-mannered disposition has become a key part of his campaign aesthetic and appeal to his supporters, the slow, lilting cadence and measured matter-of-factness of his speech reminiscent of someone doing their best Obama impression.
This has helped him to further appeal to supporters like Dan Loving, a middle-aged white farmer at the event.
“Pete is a Midwesterner,” Loving told VICE at Buttigieg’s Storm Lake event while he compared Buttigieg to coastal candidates like Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Kamala Harris, who had yet to drop out at that point.
Buttigieg’s Midwestern-ness alone can’t explain his appeal to white Democrats nationally. Much has been written about white Democrats’ shift to the left in recent years. But in Buttigieg, another sort of white Democrat appears to have found their moderate. Several of the older white voters assembled at Buttigieg’s Storm Lake event found themselves taken by Buttigieg because of what they saw as a combination of charisma and centrist policy.
Phyllis Menke, a retired city clerk from nearby Manson, liked his proposal to expand public option healthcare while leaving private health insurance intact, as well as his plan to institute Americorps-type service programs. Robert and Renee Napkin, (mostly) retired farmers, were drawn to Buttigieg after seeing his speech on unifying Americans in the post-Trump era given at the Liberty and Justice Dinner in early November. They liked his centrist positions, but also that he seemed like a relatable figure.
And there was something else both Menke and the Napkins about the candidate found magnetic as well: His youthful erudition reminded them of former presidents Barack Obama and even John F. Kennedy.
Buttigieg has spoken of his ability to recruit what he calls “future former Republicans,” touching on a common theme cited by his supporters who believe he has the best chance of defeating Trump in the general election. This has been a longtime Buttigieg tactic. In 2010, he spoke at a Tea Party event, telling the conservative group that he sympathized with the “real concerns about the direction” of the government during the Obama presidency.
During the Storm Lake event, a man named John identified himself as one such future former Republican during the Q&A portion of the evening. He was drawn to Buttigieg by what he felt was the candidate’s willingness to talk about the importance of faith in his life. During the exchange, the mayor thanked John and assured him that, though the Democratic Party at large was “allergic to talking about religion,” he was not afraid to make his faith a large public part of his campaign.
In his fervent courtship of these “future former Republicans,” Buttigieg has found yet another way to appeal to a largely white segment of American voters, as voters who self-identify as Republican are overwhelmingly white.
Since Buttigieg raced to the top of Iowa and New Hampshire polls, he has faced growing scrutiny over both his inexperience and what the meager experience he does have means for his candidacy. But for much of the previous year, he had benefited from the depictions of him as a boy genius Rhodes Scholar. A HuffPost analysis discovered that Buttigieg’s status as a Rhodes Scholar had been mentioned 596 times in U.S. publications, while another candidate, Sen. Cory Booker, had only 79 mentions of his time as a Rhodes Scholar, a disparity Booker highlighted at the November debate. Booker was also once a mayor, too, of Newark, New Jersey, a city almost three times the size of South Bend. The pair’s biographical parallels and disparate levels of success in the presidential primary has led to justifiable questions about why one of them has proved so much more successful.
Others have spoken more openly about the implicit racial issues at hand in the media’s coverage. One week after Buttigieg’s Storm lake event, Harris announced she was withdrawing from the presidential race after battling sinking poll numbers and turmoil within her campaign operation. Democratic candidate Julian Castro, who has been publicly critical of states as white as Iowa and New Hampshire leading the Democratic Primary, chastised the media soon after for the “gross, unfair, and unfortunate” “double standard” placed on Harris, the sort of double standard other campaigns grumble benefits Buttigieg.
But part of Buttigieg’s successful media strategy has been leaning into the criticism head on, as he did following Harriot’s criticism in The Root the week of Thanksgiving. The same day that Buttigieg visited Storm Lake, Harriot published a follow-up post noting that Buttigieg himself had reached out to personally to discuss the writer’s concerns. Buttigieg had spoken to him with the reasonable and calm demeanor he approaches all voters with, and Harriot admitted that the candidate had listened, but there remained one underlying problem.
“Pete Buttigieg is a white man,” Harriot wrote. “Black America wants their party to emerge victorious but not if we have to offer our votes as a living sacrifice for the sake of ‘party unity.’"
Then, he added, “What good is a white savior if he doesn’t save us?”
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