Pete Buttigieg vaulted into the top four of a crowded Democratic presidential field because he has an agile intellect, is fiercely articulate and both espouses and embodies a fresh perspective that many voters of all stripes crave.
He also got there because he’s gay.
He’d be the first to acknowledge that. In fact he did acknowledge it when we spoke last June about the state of L.G.B.T.Q. rights in America. Referring to his sexual orientation and his marriage to another man, he told me, “It’s safe to say that it led to there being more interest and attention early on.” He stood out among the dozens of Democratic aspirants, each desperate to do precisely that.
But there’s a big difference between winning over enough Americans to land in his current position — he placed second, behind Elizabeth Warren, in one survey of Iowa voters last week — and having an appeal broad enough to nab the party’s nomination, let alone the White House. Is being gay an insurmountable obstacle on the path to those prizes?
Anyone who answers with an unequivocal yes or no is just guessing.
The question is now being asked more urgently than before, as the primary contests draw closer and many Democrats simultaneously assess the risks of the two front-runners, Warren and Joe Biden, and survey the field anew, wondering if anyone in the tier of candidates just below them might be a better opponent for Donald Trump. Their gazes invariably fall on Buttigieg, but their apprehensions include whether America could really elect a gay president.
“Nobody believes that America can do what America will do until America does it,” said David Axelrod, who was Barack Obama’s chief strategist. He was referring specifically to serious worries at this point in the 2008 presidential race that America could really elect a black president.
But he said that the analogy is far from perfect. For example, Obama’s candidacy always held the promise of extraordinary support from a crucial Democratic constituency that has thus far been cool to Buttigieg — and could well remain so.
“Among a significant segment of African-American voters who are socially conservative, he’s not polling well,” Axelrod said, noting a frustration of Buttigieg’s campaign that my colleague Trip Gabriel explored in a recent article in The Times.
If Buttigieg cleared that hurdle and reached the general election, “Could he suppress turnout among African-Americans and among some Hispanic voters who might otherwise be predisposed to the Democratic nominee?” Axelrod asked. “I don’t know the answer.”
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It’s complicated. While there’s a history of resistance to gay marriage at many black churches, other factors could explain Buttigieg’s lack of success with African-Americans, some of whom surely look at him and see what many white critics of his also do: a charmed 37-year-old on the kind of glide path to greatness (Harvard, a Rhodes scholarship, a stint as a consultant with McKinsey) that defines privilege.
In a Gallup poll published in May, 83 percent of Democrats — and 82 percent of independents — said that they’d be willing to vote for a gay presidential candidate. That leaves a significant percentage who wouldn’t. A Reuters/Ipsos poll published the following month showed that among all voters, 34 percent were less likely to vote for a gay candidate. But that figure was lower than the 48 percent who said they were less likely to support a candidate over 70 — as Trump, Biden, Warren and Bernie Sanders will all be in November 2020.
Buttigieg’s sexual orientation, along with his age, definitely gave him an initial hook for journalists that other contenders didn’t have. It gave his candidacy a voguish aspect reflected in the passion of his younger supporters and the robust Twitter following that his husband, Chasten Buttigieg, quickly amassed.
It also drew donors. “Gay Money, Democratic Secret Weapon, Comes Out for Buttigieg” was the headline on an article in Vanity Fair by Peter Hamby this year. Buttigieg’s fund-raising haul of more than $51 million through Sept. 30 places him behind only Sanders and Warren.
And while being gay obviously disqualifies him for a sizable group of Americans — 36 percent of whom, according to Gallup, still oppose the legal recognition of same-sex marriage — what fraction of them were likely to vote for a Democrat, anyway? Besides, didn’t Trump’s election prove that many voters could and would overlook elements of a candidate’s personal life if he gave voice to matters they cared about?
Could the ranks of the Buttigieg-resistant be offset by Americans eager to send the kind of message about their values and their desire for change that a vote for Buttigieg would? Obama benefited from that impulse. When a candidacy seeks to make history — as Buttigieg’s does and Obama’s did — it can stir extra excitement.
Buttigieg told me that when fans approach him at campaign events, “it’s not unusual for someone to be in tears just because the fact of our candidacy is so unbelievable to them as something they would see in their lifetimes.”
For all its potential drawbacks, Buttigieg’s sexual orientation can be woven into his personal narrative to powerful effect, humanizing him, making him more approachable rather than less, forging a bridge to other minorities, establishing a familiarity with struggle and thus a capacity for empathy. All of that hinges on how deftly he integrates it into his remarks.
And on that front, he has been deft enough that, in my view, being gay doesn’t automatically doom him. His age and degree of experience — he’s the mayor of a city, South Bend, Ind., of just 100,000 people — are arguably greater vulnerabilities, and his fate won’t be anything close to a referendum on gay equality.
His sexual orientation is indisputably a challenge, but one that’s surmountable if opponents stumble, if voters’ mood is just so, if his personality sparkles, if his message sparks. We’re a country of deeply ingrained prejudices. But we can also be open-minded and openhearted, and our need for a savior outweighs any interest in what he or she does in bed.