How far will Mayor Pete go?

Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy has been met with fanfare locally, but the young Mayor has a steeper hill to climb than most realise

Forecasting elections of any nature is a tricky business. Forecasting the Democratic primaries this year is particularly challenging - there are some 20 or so declared candidates - it’s only May, and the first time these candidates will face the voters is the 3 February 2020, which is still nine months away. It is far too early to come to any real, meaningful conclusion as yet.

However, there has been one candidate in particular who has grabbed attention in the US (besides the early enthusiasm about Beto O’Rourke) and Malta: South Bend Mayor, and second-generation Maltese Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. He’s as interesting a combination of elements as they come: a millennial, Rhodes Scholar, military veteran, midwest Mayor with private sector experience who also happens to be gay - and that is part of his appeal.

Mayor Pete has done particularly well in recent weeks since his CNN Town Hall where he had a few moments which went viral, and where he was particularly critical of President Trump, and former Indiana Governor, Vice President Mike Pence. Since then, his polling numbers climbed markedly from around 0-2% to hovering around 12-15%, boosted by frequent national media appearances on well-known programmes such as Morning Joe on MSNBC, CNN, and most recently on Comedy Central with Trevor Noah. Buttigieg’s charisma, along with his engagement of New York native and Democratic political operative Lis Smith, whose connections in the media world are both deep and wide, has helped to propel his campaign to surpass seasoned politicians like New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, California Senator Kamala Harris and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren in several polls.

What makes Mayor Pete so special? This is an individual with no Washington experience, something he touts as a plus. He has never been elected as a Representative, Senator or Governor, which would have given him some additional credibility at the start of his campaign. This seems to have been offset by his message of the need of a youthful perspective (he’s only 37 years old) and his argument that he has combat experience from his time serving in Afghanistan, as well as having more executive experience than the sitting President.

His performance as mayor of South Bend has been quite positive, having helped to turn around a stagnating economy. During his re-election campaign, he came out as a homosexual, and actually received something like 80% of the vote anyway, highlighting his inroads with conservatives in his city who cared more about his economic initiatives than his sexuality. His message has been well-received to date and has proven to be a formidable contender for the Democratic nomination.

The question is: does Mayor Pete have what it takes to win the Democratic nomination for President? On paper, it is certainly possible. There have not been any debates between the candidates yet, with the first set of debates scheduled for the end of June. It is unlikely that the first few debates will render much in terms of attacks between candidates, and would serve more as a platform to discuss the candidates’ vision for the country in the age of Trump. It will only be around the end of the year where we can get a good idea of which candidates will have the staying power to get results in the numerous caucuses in February and March of 2020.

This will be Mayor Pete’s biggest challenge - staying power. The ability to continue to compete over the next year or so. Not only from a political messaging perspective but also his ability to get volunteers to do work on the ground in the key states, along with fundraising. There have been a number of candidates over the years who, like Buttigieg, have done well in the early stages and emerged as surprise contenders, only to later falter due to their inability to maintain political and financial momentum.

We should not get too far ahead of ourselves either. Over the past week, Mayor Pete’s poll numbers have fallen slightly from the 12% or so to the 8-10% range according to polls this week, with a couple of others still putting him at around 12% in places like New Hampshire. It’s still early days, but Buttigieg still trails the Democratic heavyweights such as Joe Biden, whose polls range from a minimum of 20% to as high as 39%, and Bernie Sanders, whose performance has been a little underwhelming at between 11 and 22% in the latest polls according to RealClearPolitics. Buttigieg has a long way to go to emerge from the second tier of candidates, in a bracket with those such as Harris, O’Rourke and Warren, to competing with Biden and Sanders, who have national name recognition, considerable financial clout and volunteers across the country.

Does Buttigieg have a chance? Yes, but so far it would be unrealistic to expect him to win the nomination. There has been much fanfare in the American media and amongst local commentators that Buttigieg could go all the way, but although I am hopeful to see him do well, I am also aware of just how steep the hill ahead of him actually is. There is still plenty of time between now, and the Democratic national convention in July 2020 when the nominee will be announced. There could yet be scandals which hit other frontrunners, and Mayor Pete could surpass expectations during the early debates and emerge as a frontrunner. Donald Trump proved that if your political messaging gets through to people on social and traditional media, having a well-organised campaign isn’t necessarily a prerequisite.

On current evidence, Mayor Pete has a great political career ahead of him. His fledgeling campaign has a lot of challenges ahead in order to compete effectively with the Democratic powerhouses like Biden and Sanders. Like a number of my fellow Maltese, I am excited to see him doing so well. But his chances of beating these big names are currently smaller than most realise. His message is both interesting and engaging to the younger generations in particular, which serves as a strong foundation for social media engagement. Mayor Pete has surprised many so far, and he may defy conventional expectations yet. At a time of political insurgency, the young Mayor might just fit the ticket, and prove tempered commentators like myself wrong. I wish him well.

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