Experience matters. ‘Mayor Pete’ is banking on ideals mattering more.

Why We Wrote This

Does experience have to be tied with age? South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has impressed many voters with a calm confidence that belies his youth. But since surging in polls late last month, he’s come under greater scrutiny – particularly from the left.

Cheryl Senter/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg answers questions posed by members of the media Dec. 5, 2019, at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire.

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Is being mayor of a city of 100,000 sufficient preparation for the White House? Pete Buttigieg, who is finishing up his second term as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has convinced many voters that it is. Thanks in no small part to his calm demeanor and articulate manner of speaking, he was leading polls late last month in both Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states in the nation to register their choice for a Democratic nominee.

But that surge in polling has brought heightened scrutiny to an ambitious young man who has softened his progressive rhetoric in recent months and sought to present himself as a mild-mannered Midwestern moderate who can unify a post-Trump United States. “He is in a good position, probably a better position than most people – certainly the people at the top of the heap because he seems to be peaking after everyone else,” says Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

The question is whether he will be able to withstand the scrutiny. Some polls indicate it’s already taken a toll.

Since Pete Buttigieg shot to the top of polls in Iowa and New Hampshire in late November, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has suddenly found himself – and his relative lack of experience – under a much brighter spotlight.

If he were elected, he would be the youngest president in history and the only mayor to go straight to the White House. Yet he has accrued an increasingly large throng of supporters and donors who aren’t concerned by the fact that he would be going from running a city of 100,000 to the world’s most powerful nation. Thanks to their enthusiasm and robust funding, he appears well positioned to do well in both Iowa and New Hampshire – the nation’s first contests, less than two months away.

“He is in a good position, probably a better position than most people – certainly the people at the top of the heap because he seems to be peaking after everyone else,” says Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center – and now it’s his turn to feel the heat, just as Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and others felt it before him. “The question is whether they can withstand the scrutiny that the press is going to give them when they’re the new kid on the block.”

After Senator Warren of Massachusetts surged ahead of Sen. Bernie Sanders earlier this year, she faced a withering spate of criticism, particularly over her “Medicare for All” plan. Now, her supporters and others are turning their scrutiny on Mr. Buttigieg, who in recent months has softened his progressive rhetoric and sought to fashion himself as a moderate unifier.

Among the criticisms: his consulting work for McKinsey clients, which included Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and appeared to coincide with controversial layoffs, though he disputes this; for holding closed-door events for wealthy donors; and for his Medicare for All-who-want-it plan as a boon for health insurance giants, thanks to the plan’s preservation of a private insurance option. In addition, a South Bend policeman’s shooting of an African American man this summer raised concerns about the disproportionately low number of African Americans on the city’s police force and a 60% increase in shootings in 2019 so far compared with 2018. Mr. Buttigieg has yet to expand his base of support beyond white, college-educated voters, raising concerns about the viability of his campaign in the key early state of South Carolina and beyond.

And then there is the fact that he is one of only a handful of candidates in the 2020 field with no state-level experience, let alone federal. This is the first presidential election cycle in which Mr. Buttigieg is even old enough to be eligible for the office.

The scrutiny may already be taking its toll: In the past two weeks, he dropped from 16% (2nd place) to 9% (4th place) in Quinnipiac University’s Democratic primary poll.

N.H. voters’ penchant for young candidates

Many New Hampshire voters have been vetting would-be presidents since before Pete Buttigieg was born, but even supporters from that elder cohort seem unfazed by the mayor’s youth and relative lack of experience.

“I don’t think I’ve seen anybody that’s a better politician or a better communicator than him,” says State Rep. Ray Newman of Nashua, adding that such youthfulness is not unprecedented in U.S. government. “Our forefathers were a lot younger than we imagine them to be.”

Indeed, many of the leaders of the American Revolution were around Mr. Buttigieg’s age of 37 or younger when the Declaration of Independence was signed: John Adams was 40, John Hancock 39, and Thomas Jefferson 33. Their adversary, King George III, was 38.

Cheryl Senter/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg greets supporters after speaking at a campaign event Dec. 5, 2019, at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire.

To be sure, America today is far bigger and more complex than it was at its founding. The U.S. government now employs 2.6 million civilians, more than the entire population of the 13 colonies when they declared their independence from Britain. Counting the military, the president oversees an executive branch of more than 4.1 million employees. That’s about 4,000 times more than those currently working for Mayor Pete in South Bend.

Part of Mr. Buttigieg’s support may be explained by the fact that New Hampshire primary voters have a bias toward young, reform-minded politicians – even if they’re relatively untested, says political scientist Dante Scala at the University of New Hampshire.

“You can look back on Jimmy Carter or Gary Hart or Barack Obama and there is this tendency toward finding what’s new in American politics to be especially appealing,” says Professor Scala. “Buttigieg fits in that trend thus far, so in that sense the lack of experience isn’t necessarily a minus but it’s something of a plus.”

However, Mr. Carter was coming off a term as governor of Georgia, Mr. Hart had served as a U.S. senator for nearly a decade, and Mr. Obama had done stints in both the Illinois statehouse and in the Senate. Bill Clinton, another young contender, was finishing up his fifth term as governor of Arkansas. And even John F. Kennedy, whom Mr. Buttigieg became fascinated with as a child, had served three terms in the House of Representatives and another as senator before he was elected to the White House at age 43.

Little future for Mr. Buttigieg in Indiana politics

Mr. Buttigieg, raised by parents who were professors at Notre Dame and sent him to a top Catholic high school, went on to Harvard and then Oxford University on a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. While campaigning for Mr. Obama in rural Iowa, he says he was inspired to join the U.S. Navy reserves, becoming an ensign in 2009 and later deploying for seven months to Afghanistan to serve as an intelligence officer and armed driver. After three years with McKinsey, he won the mayoral election of his hometown at age 29. After coming out as gay in 2015, he won reelection with 80% of the vote. He is now wrapping up his second term.

The fact that Indiana is largely Republican may be one reason why Mr. Buttigieg decided to shoot straight for the White House, because a bid for the statehouse or governor was unlikely to succeed.

But in an age when Washington is seen as deadlocked, some voters value effective local governance over time on Capitol Hill.

“I’d much rather have a young mayor in [the White House],” says Tim Bobinsky, waiting for Mr. Buttigieg to arrive at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire. “I’ve worked with a lot of mayors in the past. ... And I do believe that they know how to solve problems.”

That’s certainly Mayor Pete’s pitch. During the Henniker event, a young man got up and asked:

“You’re a mayor – we’ve never seen a mayor jump from that office to president of the United States. So what about that position makes you uniquely qualified or qualified [compared] to your other competitors for this office?”

“When you are a mayor, you’re responsible for getting things done,” responded Mr. Buttigieg, wearing his signature blue slacks, white dress shirt, and navy blue tie. “You’ll never hear about a city shutting down the government because they have a disagreement over politics. ... Cities don’t get to print their own money when there’s a deficit, so you just have to figure out your finances and get stuff done.”

He is credited with leading a renaissance of South Bend, which saw its unemployment rate drop by half during Mr. Buttigieg’s tenure. The mayor is known for taking an innovative, tech-savvy approach to governance, as seen in the city’s “smart sewers” that are reputed to save South Bend $500 million, according to city officials.

Interestingly, it’s younger voters in New Hampshire – ages 18 to 49 – who are less likely to have a positive view of Mr. Buttigieg, according to a late October CNN poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

“It’s not a liability – in fact, it’s probably an asset because he brings a lot of enthusiasm,” says state Rep. Peter Petrigno of Milford, New Hampshire, walking out after a packed town hall with the mayor, whom he says he is getting close to endorsing. “The bottom line is – are you competent for the job?”

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