According to polling aggregator Real Clear Politics, Democratic Presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana has seen an eleven point surge in the past six weeks. Meanwhile, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have each vacillated three to five points and Elizabeth Warren has dropped about 10 percentage points.
This recent rise of Pete Buttigieg in American politics could suggest several things. It could suggest that homosexuality is less threatening than gender or radical change. It may also suggest that he is a good alternative to the septuagenarians he’s currently running against. More importantly, as his current first-place standing in both Iowa and New Hampshire indicates, it strongly suggests that people are hungry for change.
However, as a 37-year-old two-time mayor of a mid-size American city what can be said about his ability to govern on a national level and influence and manage the complex world of international politics?
As a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University and a Rhodes Scholar, his educational pedigree is stellar. In 2009, he enlisted in the US Naval Reserve. In 2014, he took a seven-month leave of absence as mayor of South Bend to serve at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan as an armed driver.
Combining the education and military experience, this gives Buttigieg a platinum political platform to stand on and is unmatched by any other current candidate, of either party. While he’s certainly proven to be a driven individual, what has he accomplished as a mayor?
Race has been an issue in America since its founding. According to the Brookings Institute, in the past three and a half years, it’s become even more of an issue. It could be argued that the divisions between race, gender, income, political party, etc. have been exacerbated during this time. This divisiveness is reaching the point of normalization.
The challenge for any political candidate over the next 11 months will be how to present themselves as the candidate of unity.
In particular, racial unity is particularly important in the race for the Democratic nominee for President of the United States.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has long been a favorite among black American voters and as progressives toggle between Sanders and Warren, Buttigieg is left trying to find an inroad and solid ground. His rising success in the polls suggests he’s done a good job of pinching the more centrist voters away from Biden, Sanders and Warren. However, he’s struggled in pulling black voters away from supporting Biden.
Despite his proclamations of, and efforts toward, racial unity he polls near zero with non-white voters. More than anything it is Pete Buttigieg’s relationship with race that continues to be the largest hurdle he has to overcome. His political history and recent gaffs are not doing him any favors.
Over the summer, Buttigieg conflated the issues around mass incarceration in America. He said that “a black person is four times as likely as a white person to be incarcerated for the same crime is evidence of systemic racism.” The data suggest that there can be no denying that racism exists in both American courts and the penal system.
After being pressured about his sweeping comment, Buttigieg admitted that this statistic refers to an America Civil Liberties Union study that noted black people were 3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for pot and the statistic didn’t represent all crime.
While this may be true, as mayor of South Bend Buttigieg’s police force executed a drug policy that can be described as discrepant at best and racist at worst.
In the United States, marijuana usage is more or less equal between blacks and whites. However, since Buttigieg’s leadership began in 2012, the arrests made for marijuana in South Bend were considerably disproportionate. Of those arrested for possession, 64% were black and 36% were white: and of those arrested for selling pot, 22 were black and four were white.
Those percentages become more impactful when considering that, according to population statistics in 2019, South Bend is racially comprised of 63% white and 26% black citizens.
A spokesman for Buttigieg, Sean Savett, wrote: “While mayors don’t make the law related to drug possession, Pete has been an outspoken advocate for legalization.” The candidate claims to be in favor of legalizing marijuana, expunging past convictions, reducing sentences and applying them retroactively. As the Mayor of South Bend, the data suggest something different.
In Buttigieg’s recent unveiling of “The Douglass Plan”, his proposed plan that targets racial inequality. It promises a “comprehensive and intentional dismantling of racist structures and systems.” A bold initiative that had any importance it contained overlooked when his campaign used a stock photo image of a woman from Kenya to promote the plan on his website.
However inadvertent it may have been, it was used as an example of Buttigieg’s racial deafness. Furthermore, The Intercept reported that three politicians that were included on the list of 400 South Carolina supporters of the “The Douglass Plan” claimed to have been mischaracterized as endorsing the candidate.
Mayor Pete’s relationship with blacks is so poor that long-time South Bend City Councilman Oliver Davis recently endorsed Vice President Joe Biden over native Buttigieg.
In truth, despite his efforts on the campaign trail, his relationship with non-white voters makes his policy on marijuana and the Douglass Plan roll-out gaff exponentially more stunning.
However, while Buttigieg may poll at near zero for non-white voters and struggle connecting to younger voters, it doesn’t mean his message isn’t registering. He’s found a way to connect with baby boomers. As his lead in Iowa and New Hampshire suggest, even more than the three actual baby boomers running against him.
At a recent stop in Iowa, Buttigieg gave himself the moniker of “the retirement guy” after he introduced his plan for long-term healthcare. In describing his alternative to Sanders and Warren’s “Medicare 4 All” and his plan to save Social Security in the United States, he referred to it as his “Gray New Deal”.
As a history major at Harvard Mayor Pete must’ve also become a Teddy Roosevelt fan. In one speech he name-checked the 1912 dissident Bull Moose Party that nominated Theodore Roosevelt for president. An unusual reference because even among baby boomers, Teddy Roosevelt is nothing more than a Wikipedia entry and it might be safe to say that very few have any idea about the Bull Moose Party.
Many American political pundits will pontificate and speculate over the coming weeks on how whoever wins in Iowa and/or New Hampshire will be the candidate that wins the Democratic nomination. Of course, this may be true but if the presidential election in 2016 taught Americans anything, it’s to expect the unexpected.
No one would deny that Pete Buttigieg is a Democrat on the rise. His age and lack of national or international experience don’t seem to be an issue for many and he can hold his own against far more experienced politicians. But to win any race today, all candidates, regardless of party, should seek to unify and bridge societal chasms, like race, that exists.
Most people and polls suggest, that Mayor Pete has had success reaching many demographics. At the same time, they also agree that his record is a bit sparse on results and that his inability to resonate with anyone other than white voters will be problematic.
It’s this less than stellar relationship with race that will make Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy more challenging, yet not impossible, to overcome.
In 2016, no one thought that a real estate entrepreneur, reality show television host and political neophyte end up as President of the United States either.