Generational change is a key part of Pete Buttigieg’s pitch. One of his favorite topics is talking about how the world will look in 2054 when he’s as old as Donald Trump is now. He’s the first serious millennial presidential candidate (sorry for now Tulsi.)
Others have tried this too. Eric Swalwell, barely older than Mayor Pete, implored Joe Biden to “pass the torch” during the first debate. Julian Castro (age 44) talks about Democrats needing a new, fresh candidate to win, citing JFK, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, three of whom were in their early-mid forties.
It sounds logical. Trump, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren were all born in the 1940s. This should create the perfect contrast.
Not so much. Biden rejected Swalwell’s torch request, and the young congressman dropped out of the race a few days later. Castro told Biden he was a forgetful old man, saw his unfavorable numbers jump, and a Texas Latino endorser leave him for Uncle Joe.
Buttigieg has scrupulously avoided this sort of direct attack and is the better for it. Unlike the other two, he’s got some traction. A few recent polls are showing gains for the first time in months.
There’s no evidence the generational argument has anything to do with his relative success. He’s not more popular with young voters. Mayor Pete has less difference in support across age groups than most other candidates.
Beyond the data, there’s nothing about his candidacy that feels like he’s the pivot point for Millennials. If Mayor Pete becomes Nominee Pete, it’s not going to be on generational change. Why?
It’s never a primary strategy
This can work in general elections. JFK got a boost, even while running against Richard Nixon who was from the very same generation. But we remember Kennedy more for what he said after he got elected than during his campaign. After the fact, it seems like he was this amazing generational candidate.
In reality, he hit Nixon and the Eisenhower administration for being weak on pushing back against the Soviets. He invested his primary energies on convincing party bosses a Catholic candidate could win in heavily Protestant states.
Barack Obama’s hope and change wasn’t generational. Yes, he appealed to young voters. Sure he was pretty young himself. On the issues, his point of distinction was having opposed the Iraq War from the beginning. He used the type of unifying language he premiered in his 2004 DNC keynote speech, not generational speak.
We think of Bill Clinton as a generational candidate. First Baby Boomer. Played Fleetwood Mac in a loop at his events. In his 1996 re-election campaign, he talked incessantly about building a bridge to the 21st century. He chose Al Gore as his running mate to further his generational image (along with his southern roots.)
All of that is true, but that’s not how he got past Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown to win the nomination. Mostly he got nominated because that was the competition. During the primary, his generational status, where he’d both avoided Vietnam and claimed he “didn’t inhale” worked against him. He got nominated despite being a Boomer.
Should Buttigieg get nominated, he’ll be a generational candidate whether he wants to be or not. If he gets elected, rest assured, he’ll be remembered as the first Millennial president. But none of that is going to get him nominated.
There are old candidates who appeal to young voters
Part of being a generational candidate is appealing to younger voters. At the moment, young voters like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren best. Bernie has the most extreme positions on cancelling student debt. Warren wants to make college free. Bernie has the largest, most expensive plan to combat climate change.
As a moderate (by comparison) candidate, Mayor Pete is never going to be able to outbid the furthest left wing on goodies for younger voters. There’s no draft for an unpopular war, as there was in 1968 as young voters flocked to Gene McCarthy and RFK. If there were, you can be sure Sanders and Warren would oppose it just as vociferously as Buttigieg anyway.
Plus, Mayor Pete is kinda serious in his demeanor. He conveys being old beyond his years, in a way Kennedy, Clinton, and Obama didn’t. It’s more like how the young Nixon presented himself. While I doubt he’d appreciate the comparison, remember, young Nixon won a lot of elections. But it wasn’t as a generational candidate, it was as a strong anti-communist, often preferred by older voters.
Trump has energy
President Trump is old. Some think he’s mentally unstable. He’s not as verbally sharp as he was a decade ago. But nobody is accusing the guy who stays up all night tweeting of lacking energy. His many critics would prefer he calm down and move slower.
JFK ran against the perceived grayness of the Eisenhower years. He was going to get the country moving again. Clinton faced an aging Bush 41 and an aged Bob Dole. Two honorable guys who were from another era. You can say the same about John McCain, who had plenty of stamina, but looked old, and moved old due to all the bones broken while he was in captivity.
Those were old war heroes. All of them. Trump is frequently childish and got a series of draft deferments. The thirtysomething Buttigieg would run as the adult in the room. He’s the one who served.
For any climate-obsessed millennials, beating Trump is more important than which Democrat is trying to pass some version of the Green New Deal. The odds of Trump proposing serious student debt relief are zero.
At the moment, not only are Sanders and Warren to his left, but polls clearly indicate they’re perceived as more electable than Buttigieg. Biden is considered safest, then a large drop to Sanders, small drop from there to Warren, and then another drop before you get to the next tier of candidates.
Among that group, Mayor Pete is mid-pack at best. Perhaps voters are concerned an openly gay candidate is at a disadvantage. Maybe it’s that he’s only served politically as a mayor. Could be the age factor working against him. Or having a less established national brand. I’d argue it’s a combination of all of the above.
The Buttigieg campaign should stay away from the Kennedy, Clinton, Obama model. Even in a general election, he wouldn’t come across the same way. And the stakes are different. Some Democrats didn’t like Nixon in 1960. Most Democrats hate Trump in 2019. The public was tired of Bush the Elder. Few hated him. Four more years was an inconvenience, not an apocalypse.
After the W years, voters were very willing to consider a Democrat. The party definitely wanted to win. Sarah Palin aside, McCain wasn’t giving the other side constant nightmares. Let’s not pretend he was as popular with the left as he is in memoriam today, but this wasn’t Trump.
So I’d suggest Mayor Pete bottle the direct references to age/generation. Nobody is going to forget he’s younger than Bernie. Instead, he can and should channel Jimmy Carter.
Like Buttigieg, Carter came from nowhere. He’d served one term as Governor of Georgia, mostly outside the national eye. JFK fell just short of winning the VP nomination in 1956. Clinton and Obama each gave the keynote address at the previous convention.
Like Buttigieg, Carter was from a region the Democrats needed to win back. It sounds strange now, but at the time, victories required the South. Democrats lost their hold in 1964, and got swept in 1972. Carter won most of it back in 1976.
While turning Texas blue sounds fun and all, the easiest path is to flip some of the 80,000 voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin that gave Trump the presidency.
Until now, the Democrats’ 1976 field was their largest. With tons of competitors, it’s very difficult to stand out ideologically. Someone can always mirror your positions. Someone else can always outbid you. Carter ran on being the anti-Nixon.
Watergate had just happened. President Ford controversially pardoned Nixon. Vietnam ended badly. To say the country was feeling a bit cynical is putting it mildly. Carter wasn’t going to lie to you. That was his pitch. Honorable Jimmy, the peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia.
Oddly for the youngest contender, Buttigieg needs to run as the adult in the room. He’s never going to out emote Cory Booker or Beto O’Rourke, and shouldn’t try. He’s less boring than Amy Klobuchar. Joe Biden is post-adulthood. Bernie shares his somebody’s great uncle vibe. Kamala Harris still isn’t sure what she wants to be when she grows up. She tries on a new verbal outfit each debate.
Warren certainly exudes adulting. But Democrats aren’t sure she’s a winner yet. There’s #Pocahontas. More importantly, she’s very left. Mayor Pete isn’t a centrist. Not even close. But like Obama, he’s good at sounding reasonable.
Each of the three polling leaders carry significant risk. None of the other candidates have broken out. Harris and Beto got knocked down after getting a look, which is arguably even worse.
Mayor Pete often resembles a young CPA or business consultant. He did work at McKinsey for a spell. Time to lean in. And find as many ways as possible to contrast his balanced tone with Trump.
If one candidate emerges from the second tier, there’s enough non-Big Three support to create a fourth legit contender. If there’s a legit fourth contender, the first three have enough flaws to have an alternative surpass them.
Buttigieg is raising a ton of money. Iowa and New Hampshire are demographically friendly for him. There’s a path. It’s not as exciting to be the next Jimmy Carter. He might not want to govern the same way (hint: there’s a reason Democrats went 40 years without voluntarily mentioning him.) But the Carter Plan is his way forward.