Pete Buttigieg is still a long shot to win the Democratic nomination, let alone the White House. Despite surprisingly strong showings in both Iowa and New Hampshire, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, could struggle as the race turns to states where minority voters play much larger roles.
And as a 38-year-old who’s never run anything bigger than a midsize Midwestern city, he faces legitimate questions about his youth and inexperience. In the latest Quinnipiac poll, he runs fifth nationally among Democratic voters, with only 10%.
And yet. If you look at history, at the Democrats who have captured the presidency in the last 60 years, “Mayor Pete” comes closer than anyone else to fitting the winning profile. He reminds me of the New York mayoral election in 1965, when Rep. John V. Lindsay — then 44 years old — ran and won on a slogan first coined by political columnist Murray Kempton: “He is fresh, and everyone else is tired.”
Since the death of FDR in 1945, Democrats have elected only four presidents who were not already in office (so, excluding Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson). Those four — John F. Kennedy in 1960, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton in 1992, Barack Obama in 2008 — averaged 47 years of age when elected.
Buttigieg falls well below that mark, but the only other serious candidate who’s even close is Amy Klobuchar, at 59. The other four — Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bloomberg — are all in their 70s.
More importantly, each of the winners represented a fresh face; a distinct change from the past; a look forward, not backward. Kennedy embodied the wave of World War II veterans entering public life, and said in his inaugural speech, “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”
Carter followed years of official deceit and deception surrounding Vietnam and Watergate, and captured the public imagination with the slogan, “I will never lie to you.” Clinton promoted himself as the first baby boomer president, and Barack Obama, the first president of color, ran on “hope and change,” two words deeply embedded in America’s political makeup and mythology.
Buttigieg echoes all of these themes in an ad that says, “It’s time to turn the page from a Washington experience paralyzed by the same old thinking, polarized by the same old fights, to a bold vision for the next generation.”
Pete shares with the four winners the audacity to run against older and more established figures — to defy the naysayers who advised, “Wait your turn.” And he shares another quality, too: a willingness and ability to talk openly about his religious faith.
The victorious Democrats were, by and large, Washington outsiders: candidates who could run on records forged west of the Potomac. Carter and Clinton were both governors from midsize states far from the party’s coastal urban strongholds — much like Pete’s home base of Indiana.
Voters have always preferred executive to legislative experience in picking presidents; even Donald Trump, as head of a major corporation, could claim he had run something. Kennedy was a sitting senator, of course, but his political pitch focused on his war experience, symbolized by the PT-109: the torpedo boat he commanded that was sunk by the Japanese.
Obama was also a senator, but only in his first term, and he announced his candidacy on the steps of the statehouse in Springfield, Illinois, rather than Washington. Buttigieg, too, centers his narrative far outside the capital, from running a city in the heartland to serving as a soldier in Afghanistan.
If you think freshness and vitality don’t matter, remember the Democrats who have lost the presidency since Kennedy. Three of them — Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Walter Mondale in 1984, Al Gore in 2000 — had been vice president and were weighed down by the sins and scars of the leaders they’d served. Hillary Clinton staggered while shouldering the baggage of two former presidents, Bill and Barack.
Then there’s ideology. All four winners were pragmatic moderates, and on election night in New Hampshire, Buttigieg called for an “inclusive” Democratic Party that rejects the “ideological purity” represented by Sanders and a left-wing faction that has won many party nominations but never elected a president.
History can be an imperfect guide. Just look at Trump. But 60 years of data and experience still matter. The winning Democrats all follow a clear pattern, and while no candidate this year exactly fits that profile, Buttigieg is the only one in the same ZIP code.
Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com.