On Pete Buttigieg’s first trip to Iowa as a presidential candidate, during a bitterly cold day in February, he made a stop at Iowa State University in Ames to speak with a group of college students. Over forty young voters showed up, a good turnout for a then-unknown contender, and Buttigieg gave an eloquent presentation that would preview the basis for his quick breakout in the primary.
But the stop also gave a hint of one his biggest challenges he now grapples with.
A young man questioned Buttigieg about his endorsement of Hillary Clinton in the last primary, reading off a litany of critiques of her economic policies. Buttigieg responded by saying, “One thing I’m really excited to not do is relive the 2016 primary,” then launched instead into a nuanced discussion of Bernie Sanders’ success and how ideological views on health care policy have moved toward the left (a positive, as Buttigieg described it).
The man looked at him dead-eyed after he finished and simply asked, “But why did you endorse Hillary Clinton?”
Even today, as Buttigieg rockets to prominence in the party and a very possible, if not likely, first-place finish in the Iowa Caucus, it sometimes seems like young voters’ conversations are stuck in same dead-end place they were from that early interaction. Obviously, not all young voters are die-hard Sanders/anti-Clinton people like the one in Ames, but Buttigieg has clearly struggled to catch on among the younger generation, despite being the youngest candidate.
A national Quinnipiac poll in December had him garnering just 2% of voters aged 18 to 34. A recent Civiqs/ISU poll of Iowa put him at a healthier 16% of 18- to 34-year-olds, though it was still his poorest-performing age range, with Sanders more than doubling him there with 35%.
Several writers lately have delved into the divide, examining why young, online progressive activists don’t just not support Buttigieg, they actively despise him. This reporter’s personal Facebook feed is often filled with anti-Buttigieg stories that progressive Iowans share multiple times a day. Many seem not just opposed to him, but downright obsessed with Buttigieg, very similar to the level of leftist vitriol that targeted Clinton in 2016.
In that way, it does seem like we are dangerously close to reliving the 2016 primary, one that ended up quite destructive to the Democratic Party as a whole.
So, why the disconnect? Is it real, or moreso a misunderstanding of approach? You can clearly see how Buttigieg tried to run a campaign on new generational leadership, with the hopes of representing younger voters, but did their differences in college experiences create a cultural divide? And is his vision for America really that far off from what young progressives want, or does he just talk about it in a different way?
Starting Line spoke with Buttigieg about these topics in an interview yesterday in Des Moines.
What’s Changed Since Buttigieg’s College Days
Buttigieg describes in his book that the political scene during his undergrad years at Harvard (he arrived in 2000) began as “almost a quaint type of politics, still focused on debates from the 1980s.”
“In a year like 2000, it did feel like one team versus the other team. It felt like we could either have a center-right or a center-left president,” Buttigieg told Starting Line.
But it quickly changed after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the subsequent war in Iraq.
“By the time I left, the Iraq War was going on and the question was whether we were going to torture people,” he said.
However, while Buttigieg noted he lived through as a college student the beginning of that massive sea change in American politics and society, his experience was still vastly different from the political culture and reality college students face today, just 15 years later after he graduated from Harvard.
“The biggest thing is a deepening of the sense of the stakes,” Buttigieg said of what’s changed for young voters. “Now it feels almost apocalyptic. It’s about the nature of our democracy, the character of the presidency. And I don’t think it just feels that way from our side. I think there’s a real sense of what’s on the line.”
That’s produced a marked change in the sense of urgency among young activists and their attitudes.
“As a result of that, you see a level of impatience, especially among young folks,” Buttigieg said. “That’s also connected to a sense among younger voters that their lives are on the line. You look at the consequences of climate change. You look at the impact of gun violence. You look at the direction of our economy … I think it’s led to a real feeling of vulnerability and frustration. Add to that the fact that we’ve arrived at this Trumpian moment. That didn’t just happen, it’s not just one side winning over the other side. It only happens if there’s big problems going on. I think that’s led to just a more intense political feeling, among everybody, but especially among young folks.”
In a certain way, that may factor a bit into Sanders’ connection with young voters beyond policy. He grew up in another time of significant American societal upheaval, not exactly the same as today, but perhaps closer than the “quaint” politics that a young Buttigieg initially found himself in before 9/11.
Asked where he though he might fit in on a college campus today were he 16 years younger, Buttigieg at first joked, “Hopefully I’d be leading the caucus-for-Pete train on campus.” That would be an odd impossibility, but that’s probably what you get for asking a leading presidential candidate a time-traveling hypothetical scenario.
Mostly, he wasn’t sure.
“It’s tough to say, coming of age when I did was through that transition in politics,” Buttigieg said. “It’s tough to imagine what it would be like if your coming-of-age political experience had been the arrival of Donald Trump.”
Dealing With Young Skeptics
The online anger toward Buttigieg has started to turn into in-person anger at more stops around Iowa. As Buttigieg has seen his crowd sizes soar, he now also gets occasional protesters in college towns and progressive areas of the state. Earlier this month, at Grinnell College and in Coralville, protesters unfurled banners that criticized the candidate’s climate policies and support among black voters. Buttigieg disarmed them in Grinnell, asking them to come up on stage and reading off their banners, professing disappointment at the one that read, “You will kill us.”
But he also explained that he fully understands their frustration and welcomes their voices.
“As a candidate, it can be frustrating when somebody sticks an iPhone in your face and asks you a rhetorical question, but the truth is, activists are supposed to be way out ahead of elected officials and candidates,” Buttigieg said in the interview. “It would be weird if the activists were aligned with mainstream political figures. So, I respect that they have a role, that is to tug the whole system, sometimes yank the whole system forward. Because what I think most of us can agree on is that the system is letting us down.”
Many Sanders supporters would likely retort that they think there already is a candidate in the race who doesn’t need to be yanked forward.
What He Thinks They Get Wrong About Him
It’s not just that young progressive activists disagree over Buttigieg’s policies, many have also come to distrust him personally. That, Buttigieg argues, is unfounded.
“I certainly want them to understand my personal and passionate commitment to these issues,” Buttigieg said of what he hopes young voters realize about him. “I didn’t get into politics in order to keep things the same. I walked away from a paycheck and a life in the private sector to make myself useful on issues that affected people who didn’t have enough people standing up for them.”
He often points to his marriage, made possible by a single vote on the Supreme Court, as the perfect example of why politics is intensely personal to him.
Part of it, Buttigieg believes, may be a difference in how he communicates.
“I’m not an arm-waver. I’m not as loud,” Buttigieg said. “And I hope that doesn’t stop people from understanding how passionate I am about these things.”
He noted in his book and the interview how quickly technology changed during his time in college, and that social media was just in its infancy as he came of age. That is part of the clear cultural difference in which he grew up, only on the edge of the social media age. Now, it can seem a measure of how authentically you support a movement is judged by how loudly and often you post publicly about it.
There’s also been a sense during this primary that candidates pushing comparatively moderate policy positions, like Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar and Buttigieg, are fighting to maintain the overall political and economic system that many Americans are fed up with.
But if you listen to the overarching message Buttigieg pitches on the campaign trail, that simply isn’t true. Biden is explicitly arguing that Trump is an aberration and that everything can largely go back to “normal,” with Republicans once again working with Democrats in some manner.
Buttigieg has often stated that “normal” wasn’t working, and that the next president needs to chart out an era-long vision to restore American democracy. He’s doing so with some specific policy ideas that are not as far to the left as Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
“We had an event at Grinnell two or three weeks ago,” Buttigieg recalled. “There was a good amount of activist presence there. I don’t know how much I was able to win folks over. But I do feel like I was able to establish that, hey, we have pretty similar values here, actually. I’m trying to solve the problems that you’re worried about. We’re pulling in the same direction. You can conclude that I’m the candidate or not … but I’m looking for ways to make clear my sense that we all want to make sure that our economy is more balanced toward work and toward workers versus wealth.”
Who He Thinks Is Really Pandering
Part of the online left’s frustration with Buttigieg is they think that he’s moved more toward the center during this primary as a political calculation. Buttigieg, however, believes that concern is overblown, and that, regardless, he’s better-positioned to accomplish sweeping improvements to the health care system compared to some of his competitors, because he argues his “Medicare for All Who Want It” plan is more broadly supported.
He also questioned the idea of who might really be pandering in the primary.
“[I want to] remind voters that I would be the most progressive president of our lifetimes,” he said. “What I’m proposing would be the biggest thing we’ve done on health care in fifty years. It could only be seen as nibbling around the edges if your concept of bigness is driven by how many people you can alienate versus actually solving the problem and having an impact.”
(Interestingly, though Warren has employed the “nibble around the edges” rhetoric to critique others’ plans, Buttigieg himself, in some of his first media interviews as a candidate, argued, “We can’t nibble around the edges of a system that no longer works.”)
In the December debate and recently on the campaign trail, Buttigieg has pushed back more forcefully when criticized by Warren and Sanders, arguing they’re imposing rigid purity tests that even they didn’t always live by.
“And part of how we can tell that some of the purity tests are more politics is that, you know, as recently as a couple of years ago, Bernie Sanders was for targeted free college versus free college for all,” Buttigieg said. “And about ten years ago, he was for a health care vision not so different than mine.”
“It’s the season for us to draw distinctions,” he added, with a shrug. “That’s how you compete.”
Ending The Apocalypse
For the past two months, Buttigieg has leaned heavily into a hopeful, unity message on the Iowa campaign trail, telling voters the point of his campaign is not the fight itself, but what the fight can accomplish. For those mentally and emotionally exhausted by the Trump presidency, it can be a welcome vision of the future.
It also works into what Buttigieg hopes his potential presidency could do for the psyche of younger Americans, to see a country that better reflects both their values and themselves on a personal level.
“I want to build a White House that is accepting, that is innovative, that is moral, that is compassionate,” Buttigieg said. “And that is joyful. Politics doesn’t have to be apocalyptic all the time. I think we have to get out of that, because part of what makes it possible for this president to get away with a lot things is the sheer exhaustion that the tenor this White House, this Washington creates.”
Engaging in politics in a joyful way may be a completely foreign concept at this point to young progressive activists given the world they find themselves in. For Buttigieg to prevail in the general election if he becomes the nominee, however, he may yet need to bridge that trust and cultural gap with younger voters, so that those who came of age in the Trump era can finally move past it—by helping beat him.
by Pat Rynard