The worst kept political secret in the country is finally out of the bag: Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind. is running for president. He made his announcement at a campaign rally in his hometown on Sunday.
"My name is Pete Buttigieg. They call me Mayor Pete," he said at the rally. "I am a proud son of South Bend, Indiana. And I am running for President of the United States."
And with that, it became official. But Buttigieg's announcement came after a relentless, weeks-long publicity campaign in which he was profiled in print, appeared on cable news and did good old-fashioned retail politics in Iowa and New Hampshire.
In his speech on Sunday, Buttigieg capitalized on two things that have become his calling cards during this media blitz: his current role as the executive of a small, midwestern city…and the pronunciation of his last name.
"Some people say boot-edge-edge. Other people say buddha and then the word judge, and that'll get you there. Either way, three times fast and it gets you to Buttigieg," the mayor said in a recent interview with MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell – just one of a spate of appearances he made on MSNBC and CNN during March and April.
Indeed, since announcing that he was considering a run for the White House in late January, Buttigieg has gone from having almost no political name recognition to becoming a cable television darling. The publicity tour kicked off in earnest when he sat down with CNN's Jake Tapper for a town hall in March. CNN later reported that Buttigieg raised $600,000 in the 24 hours after that broadcast.
That impressive fundraising haul was cemented when Buttigieg's campaign announced that the mayor had raised $7 million in the first quarter of 2019.
Buttigieg skyrocketed in the polls after the broadcast of his CNN town hall, and by the time he officially announced his candidacy on Sunday, he had built his name recognition to become the second-most-searched candidate on Google and had consistently been ranking third place in national polls behind former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Now that his respectable warchest and his place in the polls have secured his spot in the Democrat's first primary debate in June, the mayor must now evolve from unexpected phenom to political fixture.
The politically minded media have largely attributed Buttigieg's early success to using his midwestern bona fides to blunt his otherwise progressive message. The mayor gained national attention in 2016 when, a month after the presidential election, he published "A Letter from Flyover Country" on Medium. In it, he addressed the reasons that Hillary Clinton had lost the presidency to Donald Trump, and he proposed solutions for a new Democratic Party. Those solutions included a focus on protecting what Buttigieg called the four F's: freedom, fairness, families and the future.
That pragmatic-sounding rhetoric stands in contrast to candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who have fully embraced the far-left label. However, while Buttigieg projects centrism, his policy priorities are similar to those of many of his Democratic rivals. He supports a single payer health care, believes in universal background checks for gun purchasers, wants to reform the electoral college, and even calls guaranteeing basic incomes for working people an idea "worth taking seriously."
MIT student and Indiana native Aaron Dy said it's still too early to know who he's voting for, but Buttigieg is one of his top three candidates.
"[He is] able to connect, how does this give you more freedom in your life, how does this help you with your family, how is this about the large values that people can agree on, while also willing to discuss specific policy," he said. "I don't think he's the only candidate that can do both, but I think it's something that is important and that he does fairly well."
Buttigieg's biography also plays a large role in his appeal.
In a media ecosystem that is quick to put political candidates in clearly demarcated campaign lanes, Buttigieg blurs the boundaries of conventional identity politics. He is a Harvard graduate. The son of an immigrant. A Rhodes scholar. An Afghanistan War veteran. An openly gay man. A millennial. A practicing Anglican.
And when a French reporter asked him on Monday about the fire that had torn through the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris earlier that day, Buttigieg gave his answer in unbroken French.
"There's so many boxes that he checks," LA Times journalist Eli Stokols said during a panel discussion at the Festival of Books on Sunday. "Part of [his] appeal might be that he seems like he was cryogenically created in a lab: he's, like, perfect."
While he seems to be a perfect candidate on paper, Buttigieg is also challenging stereotypes by tying his being gay to his Anglican faith. In a recent speech in Washington, Buttigieg said that his marriage to his husband Chasten and his belief in God are inextricably linked.
"Being married to Chasten has made me a better human being — because it has made me more compassionate, more understanding, more self-aware and more decent," Buttigieg said. "My marriage to Chasten has made me a better man and yes, Mr. Vice President, it has moved me closer to God."
Earlier in the speech, Buttigieg elaborated on his own struggles with accepting his sexuality and reconciling it with his faith.
"If me being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade," he said. "And that's the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand — that if you've got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator."
Those jabs at Vice President Mike Pence, who has a documented record of being anti-LGBT rights, adds a level of nuance that has been absent from the culture wars in years past. By entwining his Christian faith with his being gay, Buttigieg has opened a new channel for religious conservatives and freedom-of-choice liberals to talk about God, family and homosexuality.
Buttigieg's youth also makes him stand out, particularly against Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, who are both in their late 70s. Buttigieg is 37, and if elected, he would be the youngest person to ever become president.
"He is able to help bridge the divide of intergenerational angst by being able to showcase that millennials aren't the supposed entitled and lazy persona [as] many Baby Boomers have characterized millennials and Gen Y," Michael Lemocks, a Buttigieg supporter from Georgetown, S.C., said.
Buttigieg has benefited from a very generous publicity feedback loop this spring: the more he appeared, the more he was talked about. The more he was talked about, the more media attention he received. In a field in which almost 20 Democrats have announced official presidential campaigns, going from relative obscurity to top-tier candidate is impressive.
"He has had this very savvy strategy of putting himself out there to really anybody who wanted to pay attention," Melanie Mason, a political reporter for the LA Times, said during her newspaper's Festival of Books. "Now, when people want to talk to me about the campaign, almost always they want to talk about Mayor Pete."
Teaching primary voters to pronounce his name was just the beginning. Now that his campaign has evolved into its next iteration, Buttigieg's immediate challenge will be to maintain his momentum and keep the media's spotlight on himself until the Democrats' first televised debate in June.