It has been called the “Buttigieg Effect”. The little-known mayor from South Bend, Indiana who entered a very crowded fielded of 17 Democrats vying for the presidency has seen a sudden meteoric rise in the polls. He’s appearing on the View, the Late Show, and Ellen. He’s seen his rallies begin to amass thousands of people. He’s winning over America with his charm and youth, and in many states is polling just behind far more recognisable candidates Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden. This is an incredible achievement for the mayor of a city that has the population of 100,000 people. This is an incredible achievement for an openly gay man in American politics.
His name is Pete Buttigieg, and at 37 years old he would not only be the first openly gay president – he would also be the first millennial president. In many respects, he is the polar opposite to Trump. If re-elected Trump would be the oldest president to start a new term, Buttigieg is barely over the 35-year age requirement for the presidency. Where Trump is doggedly anti-intellectual, Buttigieg speaks seven languages (including Arabic). Trump avoided the draft, Buttigieg served in the armed forces. Trump is dark, intentionally divisive, and deeply dishonest. Buttigieg exudes a sunny optimism, is calm, unthreatening, moderate and sympathetic.
“Buttigieg's sexual identity might be relevant in a race against a president who often lacks compassion,” writes Churchill, for Times Union.
“He knows the pain of the outsider, and it has helped him understand the importance of sympathy and inclusion.”
This may be an important distinction in the race ahead.
Trump is dark, intentionally divisive, and deeply dishonest. Buttigieg exudes a sunny optimism, is calm, unthreatening, moderate and sympathetic.
“In those and other ways, Buttigieg couldn't be more different than Donald Trump, which is no small thing if you accept that each president is a reaction to the qualities of his predecessor,” argues Churchill, who points out a pattern many have noticed in American politics.
George Bush’s evangelicalism was a reaction against Bill Clinton’s perceived sleaze. Barrack Obama’s intellectualism was a reaction against Bush’s inability to hold fast against a complex world. Trump’s hot-headed anger was a reaction to Obama’s smooth talking aloofness. Could Buttigieg be the perfect reaction to Trump?
It is remarkable that through his campaign so far Buttigieg’s sexual orientation has been a relatively small issue. A recent poll from the Wall Street Journal and NBC News has found that a staggering 68 percent of Americans are enthusiastic or comfortable with a gay president – this number jumps to 75 percent when looking just at those aged 18 to 34. Just over a decade ago, in 2006, these numbers were far lower. In 2006 only 43 percent of voters said they were comfortable with a gay president – with 47 percent of those aged 18 to 34 and 31 percent of those aged 65 and over.
The results from this survey suggest Americans are more comfortable with having a gay president over having an evangelical Christian one.
In 2019, could being openly gay be a positive, not a detriment, to a person running for the presidency?
It is worth nothing that Buttigieg is not the first openly gay man to vie for the presidency. In 2012 Fred Karger launched a similar long-shot campaign for the Republican nomination, and in many ways paved the way for Buttigieg.
A staggering 68 percent of Americans are enthusiastic or comfortable with a gay president – this number jumps to 75 percent when looking just at those aged 18 to 34.
Karger notes that even just eight years ago, the reaction to a gay candidacy was completely different. Karger struggled to get attention, and when he did he received death threats, was ridiculed, and often had difficulty being taken seriously.
“I thought a lot about Shirley Chisholm running as the first African American opening doors for candidates like Jesse Jackson to run,” Karger said. “When I ran, I did it to make it easier for the next person. I was thinking it would be in four years but it took eight. That’s fine! I’m proud of that.”
Far from bitter, Karger praises the way Buttigieg is handling his campaign.
“He’s handling it beautifully,” Karger said. “When I ran, I really liked bringing it [my sexuality] up at first and I enjoyed bringing it up at Republican gatherings. But it’s nice to see media moving past that to talk about other things: what are our ideas, what are we looking to do, sticking to the facts.
“I got to meet Pete briefly before he went onstage and thanked me for making the path easier.
“I was flabbergasted with the size of the audience. I’m very impressed with how Pete’s coming off.”
“You are openly gay, married, but you have only been out for the last few years. Any concerns the country is not ready for a gay couple in the White House?” Stephanopoulos from This Week directly asked Buttigieg when he appeared on the show.
It may be the central question of Buttigieg’s campaign, one he has been asked countless times. For his part, Buttigieg has the perfect answer: “I think there’s only one way to find out.”
Elaborating, Buttigieg explained how he came out in the middle of a re-election campaign just a few years ago, and how it ended up having little to no effect on the end result: “I just reached that point in my life where I was ready. And we didn’t know what would happen. I’m from a socially conservative community. Mike Pence was the governor of Indiana at the time. And I just did it because it was time. That same year, I wound up getting re-elected with the 80 percent of the vote.
“People are prepared to get to know you and judge you based on the quality of your ideas and your experience and your work. And I trust that America could do that too. There is only one way to find out for sure.”
Buttigieg’s rise certainly hints that we may be at the point in history, where the ideas and the content are more important than judging a person based on something as trivial as their sexual orientation.