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Pete Buttigieg’s an interesting candidate but shouldn’t be a favourite

April 13th, 2019

A 30-something gay small-city mayor should not be 14/1 to win WH2020

Precedent is a good guide but a bad determinant. To believe that something cannot happen because it hasn’t previously happened is to end up being unpleasantly surprised. It’s therefore possible that the Democrats could look past the current or former governors, senators and vice-president in order to select as their candidate someone who’s not just the mayor of a city the size of Chesterfield but who’s still in his thirties and gay. Possible but surely unlikely, you’d think.

Unlikely perhaps – but not as unlikely as the raw facts might suggest. Firstly, Buttigieg has serious support. His political experience might not put him in the big league but his fundraising does: in the first quarter of 2019, he raised $7m – more than any of Senators Warren, Klobuchar or Booker. That’s still a good deal less than Bernie Sanders, who led the field with over $18m but it’s more than enough to show that he’s being noticed and taken seriously.

That’s reflected in the polls too. While the as-yet-undeclared Biden continues to lead and Sanders remains a solid second, Buttigieg transitioned during March from a 0-1% also-ran into the second tier of mid-to-upper-single-figures candidates, alongside the likes of Booker, Warren and O’Rourke.

The second reason we shouldn’t be too sceptical is that while his CV might be thin, what is there is strong. Admittedly, it’s the sort of record that would usually be a launchpad to gubernatorial or Congressional office rather than a shot at the White House but it speaks of ability all the same. With the early debates likely to give candidates little time to speak out or cross-examine their opponents due to the numbers involved, his paucity of experience might well matter less than the positive message he can get across.

Thirdly, we need to look at who he isn’t as much as who he is. For all that the Democrats have an absurd amount of choice for 2020, that’s as much a measure of the field’s weakness (and Trump’s perceived weakness) as a strength. If, for example, Barack Obama were willing and able to run, you can be sure that many who are chancing their arm this time wouldn’t bother: they’re having a go because there isn’t a charismatic, dominant, experienced, inspiring person ready to assume the candidature. The fact that Buttigieg is unknown is an advantage in that context.

But is that enough? Or, to ask a related question, are his odds a fair assessment? To my mind, no: they’re the product of a minor polling bubble (which may have some further inflation left yet), a related funding bubble.

It’s certainly true that the old rules don’t apply to the same degree: Trump proved that, as did – in his own way – Sanders (who might have lost but who performed far better than expected). The polarised electorate overall and the nature of the electorates in primaries means that a party can still select an electorally difficult candidate providing that he or she have a big enough loyal base.

And the truth is that Buttigieg would be electorally difficult, coming with a whole set of high-risk factors. His sexuality alone in a country where religion plays a far more significant role than in Britain is likely to be a major hindrance, even if polls suggest that 70% of Americans would be accepting of gay president. (If this were true in act as well as word, you might expect there to be more openly LBGT senators and governors than there are). Even more of an issue is likely to be the claim that his candidature is lightweight – which in the end, and when faced with the prospect of going up against Trump, is what I suspect will do for him.

In what has in a few short years become a very unpredictable process, we should take Buttigieg seriously as a contender – but not yet too seriously. Even as a middle-ranking contender at the moment, I get the feeling that he’s punching above his weight. Most bookies have him at around 7/1 for the nomination, which I’d say is about half what it should be, with the best odds for the presidency being 14/1: almost fourth-favourite. Again, it should be well into the twenties.

David Herdson