Is Pete Buttigieg the future of the Democratic Party?

Pete Buttigieg is having a moment.

With a bio as unique as his name, the progressive mayor from South Bend has jumped to third place in the latest Emerson poll of the 2020 Democratic Iowa caucus, Salon reports. Buttigieg (pronounced BOOT-edge-edge, according to his official Twitter bio) is a 37-year-old Afghanistan war veteran, Harvard graduate and Rhodes scholar, who has taught himself Norwegian—see his response last weekend in South Carolina to a question from a Norwegian journalist here—and is conversant in several other languages. He is vying to become the first openly gay presidential nominee from a major political party.

According to Emerson’s findings, 11 percent of likely Democratic Iowa caucus-goers say they would vote for Buttigieg to be their 2020 presidential nominee. Vice President Joe Biden, who has not yet entered the race, received the support of 25 percent of poll respondents, while 24 percent of likely caucus-goers said they would choose Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The only other candidate to receive double-digit support was Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who was favored by 10 percent of respondents.

Buttigieg’s newfound momentum was not lost on Spencer Kimball, director of the Emerson Poll, who said in a statement:

The biggest surprise in this poll is Mayor Pete. Last week, we saw him inching up in our national poll, and now he’s in double digits in Iowa. America is going to be asking, “Who is Mayor Pete?”

The South Bend mayor polled at 0 percent in Emerson’s January Iowa poll, conducted before many candidates had joined the 2020 race. He has since formed an exploratory committee but has not officially declared his candidacy.

“It remains too early to tell whether Buttigieg can maintain this momentum going into the debate season,” writes Vanity Fair’s Tina Ngyuen. “But he certainly appears to have cross-categorical appeal. Buttigieg speaks the language of the heartland and the identity-politics of progressives, while balancing centrist sensibilities (keeping some aspect of private insurance, for instance) with Twitter-friendly galaxy-brain policy proposals (like packing the Supreme Court). If he can stay on the radar of an easily distracted media without any obvious gaffes, the Buttigieg boomlet may have staying power.”

Buttigieg garnered attention over the weekend when he urged Democratic voters not to cede the term “freedom” to the right. He told a crowd in Rock Hill, S.C.:

They [conservatives] care about a specific kind of freedom—freedom from regulation—as though government was the only thing that could make us unfree. … If they’re telling you who you ought to marry, the county clerk is making you unfree. You’re not free if you’re afraid to start a small business because leaving your job would mean losing your health care. You are not free if there is a veil of mistrust between you as a person of color and the officers who are sworn to keep you safe. You’re not free if your reproductive choices are being dictated by male politicians in Washington.

Don’t let anybody tell you that the other side is the side that’s got a handle on freedom. We are the party of freedom and we shouldn’t be afraid to go out there and say it.

— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) March 24, 2019

Buttigieg’s atypical background makes it tough to remember he’s just 37 years old. As a teenager, he won a Profile in Courage award for an essay he wrote about then-U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders, bemoaning the “cynicism” of politics and calling Sanders an example of “public integrity,” NBC News writes.

As a graduate from Harvard University, his early political work reflects those Massachusetts ties: He was a summer intern for the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and worked for Democratic Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004.

Buttigieg was elected mayor of his hometown of South Bend at age 29, becoming the youngest to hold that office in a mid-size U.S. city. In a profile for the Washington Post titled “Could Pete Buttigieg Become the First Millennial President?“, Bob Moser writes that while serving as mayor, Buttigieg:

[V]olunteered for active duty in Afghanistan, … came out as gay in the local newspaper, married a schoolteacher live on YouTube, turned heads in a dark-horse bid to lead the Democratic National Committee, and had the New York Times’ Frank Bruni gushing about him as potentially the “‘First Gay President’— all by age 36.

In 2017, he ran for Democratic National Committee chair with an emphasis on rebuilding the Democratic Party from the ground up in every community.

Salon reports that Buttigieg’s strong performance in the Emerson poll was bolstered by placing second among 18- to 29-year-olds with 22 percent. Sanders led that category with 44 percent. Kimball notes that: “If Buttigieg is able to maintain his momentum, his candidacy appears to be pulling from the same demographic of young voters as Sanders, and that could become a problem for Sanders.”

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