Pete Buttigieg planned Sunday to drop out of the Democratic presidential race, ending an improbable and historic campaign that cemented the gay former South Bend, Ind., mayor as one of the party’s young stars, but which struggled with the candidate’s short political resume and his lack of popularity with voters of color.
He narrowly won the Iowa caucuses and finished a close second in the New Hampshire primary. But poor showings in the next two contests, in Nevada Feb. 22 and on Saturday in South Carolina, suggested there was no plausible route to the nomination.
It had been an uphill climb from the beginning for Buttigieg, 38, who launched his candidacy from relative obscurity from South Bend, a Rust Belt city of about 100,000 people that had been on an economic upswing since the start of his eight-year tenure in 2012.
Not since the nomination of diplomat and Solicitor General John W. Davis in 1924 has the Democratic Party selected a candidate who had not previously won a statewide election as either governor or U.S. senator. Buttigieg had previously run for Indiana state treasurer in 2010 and for chair of the Democratic National Committee in 2017 and lost both races handily.
But the Republican Party’s nomination and election in 2016 of Donald Trump, who had no experience as a public servant, had broadened voters and experts’ perspectives on what was possible in a presidential nominee. The Democratic Party, still reeling from the loss, was undergoing an identity crisis and had no clear leader, which ultimately led more than 20 candidates to plunge in.
Buttigieg surged past multiple governors and senators through successful early media appearances on CNN and the liberal podcast “Pod Save America,” where the former Rhodes scholar and Navy intelligence officer impressed many listeners with the nimble and clear speaking style that would become the hallmark of his public appearances.
Buttigieg’s youth presented a stark contrast to the septuagenarians leading the Democratic field, and he pitched himself to voters as a liberal who was nonetheless moderate enough to bring in independents and disaffected Republicans disgusted by Trump’s brash presidency.
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The fact that he was a gay man from conservative Indiana lent historical weight to his presidential candidacy, which was a first for the Democratic Party; his husband, Chasten, a public school teacher, would become something of a cultural icon in his own right.
Buttigieg’s advisers sensed his unique biography and self-discipline would be a strength on the campaign trail, and — in contrast to more gaffe-prone candidates such as former Vice President Joe Biden — they made the South Bend native as accessible to journalists as possible.
The strategy helped boost his media profile on the cheap, and campaign contributions followed as big-dollar Democratic donors were particularly taken by Buttigieg, whose endorsers included Hollywood celebrities such as Kevin Costner and Mandy Moore. He also drew the support of prominent LGBTQ entertainers such as George Takei and Ellen DeGeneres.
The donations enabled Buttigieg’s campaign to compete against his higher-profile and well-financed opponents, but also marred his image as the Midwestern mayor-next-door after images leaked of a posh campaign fundraiser in a Napa Valley, Calif., wine cave.
The fact that Buttigieg was even accepting large donations and holding private fundraisers in the first place marked an ideological departure from his fellow millennials, who were increasingly turning toward the kind of economic populism espoused by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and who became some of Buttigieg’s harshest critics.
Buttigieg also received unfriendly headlines for his past work for McKinsey & Co., a controversial consulting firm known for cost-cutting and for its willingness to work with unsavory clients. The company had bound him to a confidentiality agreement that was only lifted after a public outcry over a lack of transparency.
Buttigieg struck an increasingly moderate position as the campaign wore on, criticizing big left-wing ideas such as universal free college and a single-payer “Medicare for All” health care system, which Buttigieg rebranded as a less aggressive “Medicare for all who want it” public option. His campaign defended him from attacks from progressives by arguing that he was running to the left of where Hillary Clinton’s platform was in 2016.
His political inexperience also drew concern, particularly from critics who wondered if a woman with a similarly short resume would have gotten similar attention and credibility. “Could we be running with less experience than we had? I don’t think so,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota told The New York Times. “I don’t think people would take us seriously.”