Let’s compare two candidates. We’ll pick up their story in late 2010.
Candidate A: After working as a geologist, he found himself unemployed after a corporate buyout, during a historic downturn in the oil market. Facing a career crossroads, he borrowed money from friends, family, and the local economic development fund to launch one of the first brewpubs in the country.
In launching and sustaining his business, Candidate A got very involved in the community, becoming mayor in 2003. Quickly recognized as one of the most popular and effective mayors in the country, he won re-election in 2007 with 88% of the vote, drawing bipartisan support. In November 2010, he takes the next step and becomes governor.
Candidate B: High school valedictorian. Graduated with distinction from Harvard. Went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. Worked a series of short-term lower level political jobs. Spent a few minutes as a consultant at McKinsey. Ran for state treasurer as a Democrat in a red state and lost by more than 20 points.
Nine years later, Candidate A and Candidate B both run for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Candidate A makes zero impact, and withdraws six months ahead of the Iowa Caucus. Candidate B raises more money than the other 20+ candidates in the second quarter, and sits securely in fifth place in national polls, running closer in Iowa and New Hampshire than overall.
What happened in between?
Candidate A easily won re-election as governor, got some consideration as a running mate for Hillary Clinton, and was discussed as a possible companion for John Kasich on a centrist third party ticket in 2020. He left office with a lengthy list of accomplishments.
Candidate B got himself elected mayor of a city with 102,450 residents. Deployed to Afghanistan for 7 months. Was quickly recognized as an effective mayor. Came out as gay. Got re-elected with over 80% of the vote. Ran for Chair of the Democratic National Committee and fell short. Reached the mandatory minimum age to run for president.
A few years ago, nobody would have believed Candidate A could fail while Candidate B thrived. Even now, it’s easy to compare the two and think Mayor Pete is a triumph of narrative and timing, while Governor Hickenlooper is a victim of circumstance and timing.
Not so fast.
It’s true being a gay veteran is propelling Pete Buttigieg in a way it would not have in previous generations. It’s true the backstory and attendant media attention helped separate him from the pack of anonymous white males with longer resumes who combine for less polling support and funds raised than he has by himself.
It’s true John Hickenlooper had a ton of other candidates in his lane, including a sitting senator from the same state. It’s true this is a particularly bad time to run as a pragmatic, low-key, problem-solving moderate in a Democratic primary. It’s true he’s a bad demographic fit for the modern intersectional Democratic Party. It’s true he lacks the well-known brand of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.
But that ain’t it. It’s two other things.
First, Hickenlooper doesn’t sound good when he speaks. Not in debates, not on the stump, not in interviews. He’s awkward and gawky and can’t create good fifteen second clips. You may wonder how someone could win four elections by solid to huge margins, and serve in high profile offices for most of the century while being verbally abysmal.
Well, he was instrumental in the revitalization of the LoDo area in Denver. By the time he ran for mayor, the city was well on it’s way to becoming a mecca for affluent young professionals. Other elements contributed, like the construction of Coors Field for the Colorado Rockies. But Hickenlooper was the sourdough starter for the Denver Renaissance.
That got him rolling. The Denver metro area is a large proportion of the total population of Colorado. Denver is the state capital. It’s an even higher concentration of Democratic voters. He basically ran for governor as an incumbent. It’s been a long time since Hickenlooper needed to sell himself to a new audience. He spent his entire political career working within 2 miles of his brewpub.
Candidates who are too much of a specific place often struggle in a presidential run. They don’t need to learn how to speak to a larger audience. They communicate with their voters in shorthand. Scott Walker, King of Wisconsin in 2016. Tim Pawlenty, Man from Minnesota in 2012, and for that matter, Amy Klobuchar, Woman from Minnesota right now.
For all of Buttigieg’s youth, he’s moved around a lot. He got his ass kicked statewide in 2010. That taught him a few things. He ran for mayor before and after coming out. He worked for the worlds largest consultancy and drove a vehicle around Kabul.
Though so far he’s resonated more with an educated, affluent audience, Mayor Pete built himself a style and approach that works far outside the confines of South Bend, Indiana. He constantly refers to his home city, but as an example for smaller post-industrial cities, a proxy for the Midwest and the Rust Belt.
While Hickenlooper was arguably the least verbally dexterous candidate, Buttigieg is arguably the most. Sure, his story got him a hearing, but he was ready to back it up.
Second, when exactly have Democrats nominated someone with Hickenlooper’s resume and ideological bearing?
Jimmy Carter was a centrist business-owning ex-governor in 1976. Bill Clinton was a reasonably centrist governor in 1992. And uh, that’s it. Both were way younger than Hickenlooper. Both were part of an effort to win southern states back into the Democratic coalition.
Republicans have nominated several candidates with extensive private sector backgrounds. Democrats don’t usually do this. Even Carter spent much of his pre-presidential career in public office or the Navy.
While it’s tempting to think a party should pick a nominee toward the center to grab moderate voters and win the election, it’s not how they actually behave, particularly only one term removed from holding the White House. When you hear the argument that Hillary Clinton lost because she didn’t run far enough to the left, know that’s always the contention at this stage.
It takes being out of power a bit longer to pull enough of the primary electorate around. Sure many Democrats hate Donald Trump. A lot of liberal Democrats hated Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan too. It didn’t convince them to nominate a centrist.
Buttigieg excels at packaging progressive/liberal concepts in a non-threatening way. He’s selling what the base wants in a way that could appeal to moderate voters. Hickenlooper is actually a moderate. One of these things is way more appealing to primary voters than the other.
Though one of Biden, Bernie, and Warren may well prove otherwise this year, Democrats usually nominate younger candidates. When they call Republicans the Grand Old Party, it more accurately describes their presidential choices. There have been 17 nominees in each party since 1952.
Let’s say a candidate who is 65 or older on Election Day is old. That’s the traditional retirement age, and when a person qualifies for Medicare. A candidate under 50 is young, at least by presidential standards. Anything in between is normal senior executive age.
Young: Democrats 3, GOP 1
Normal: Democrats 13, GOP 8
Old: Democrats 1, GOP 8
The average Democratic nominee is 53. The average Republican, 63. Democrats have run the younger candidate 14 out of 17 times. The three exceptions were virtual ties. Hickenlooper is 67.
Should the then 38-year-old Buttigieg get nominated next year, he would not set a record. Way back in 1896, the Dems tabbed 36-year-old William Jennings Bryan. He got to play again at 40 and 48. He also lost each time by increasing margins. He is to presidential elections what the Buffalo Bills are to Super Bowls.
While the “Solid South” was a recent Democratic memory in the Carter Era, the last Democrat to get elected president via the Mountain West was Harry Truman. Colorado and New Mexico are blueish purple. The rest of the region is scarlet. Mayor Pete is one of several candidates arguing the way back to the White House is through his region. Hickenlooper couldn’t say that.
When the unknown Carter spent 1975 traipsing through Iowa with his microscopic poll numbers, he was alone. Many of his opponents didn’t enter the contest until voting began the following year. Know how many debates the DNC sponsored in 1975? Zero. Forget debate qualification requirements. There were no debates.
Bill Clinton got to skip Iowa entirely. Tom Harkin, Senator from Iowa was in the race. The others punted. He survived New Hampshire, and then the next several contests were in the South.
Hickenlooper had to deal with Joe Biden’s universal name recognition and decades of good will. Every famous Democrat you can think of is running this time. While Carter’s opponents were tardy, Clinton’s had surrendered. With George H.W. Bush riding high after the first Iraq War, the top several contenders bowed out.
He eventually overcame Paul Tsongas and the mid-life crisis version of Jerry Brown. So if you threw Hickenlooper in the DeLorean and sent him back to August 1991, he could maybe get nominated. Any other time and place in the history of the Democratic Party and he’d be a decided underdog.
Narratives are very helpful. Speaking with the right tone and pitch for the nominating audience is damn important. Already being famous. Extremely useful. You know what doesn’t matter? Resume and qualifications. And that’s historically true, never mind a time where voters don’t trust the establishment.
Mayor Pete over Governor Hickenlooper isn’t a fluke. It was to be expected.