Pete Buttigieg got an hour of free airtime from CNN on Sunday night. The opportunity wasn’t so much a chance to win over a live audience as it was to bank the kind of viral moment that could elevate a little-known mayor of South Bend, Indiana, as a presidential contender.
Buttigieg found that moment, and he’s using it to build hype around a candidacy that he freely admits is a long shot.
Jake Tapper, who hosted the town hall forum from the SXSW festival in Austin, asked Buttigieg if Vice President Mike Pence would be a better president than Donald Trump. Buttigieg, who is gay and quite familiar with the former Indiana governor’s anti-gay policies, palmed his face with his left hand and hammily affected a horror-stricken look.
Why, he wondered, must he choose between the two?
"How could he allow himself to become the cheerleader of the porn star presidency?” Buttigieg finally said of Pence, referencing his Christian conservatism. “Is it that he stopped believing in scripture when he started believing in Donald Trump? I don't know. I don't know."
The shot quickly rang around Facebook and Twitter and, on a night when CNN staged forums with two other underdog Democratic prospects, Buttigieg scored the most memorable line. (Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s refusal to call Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a war criminal was another, though not in the flattering way that Buttigieg’s remarks have been replayed.)
“I understand from speaking to friends how he came across on TV, but he owned the room,” Steve Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, who was in the audience, told BuzzFeed News.
Benjamin is an influential Democrat in the state that holds the first presidential primary in the South. He has not yet endorsed a candidate but is friends with Buttigieg, a fellow mayor.
“It’s obviously a game-changing moment for his campaign,” Benjamin said. “If he keeps on giving smart, thoughtful, crisp, and unifying answers, he’s going to do very well.”
Buttigieg’s team was prepared for Sunday, aware that a breakout performance and a well-orchestrated effort to amplify it could help him boost his name recognition and qualify for an even bigger stage: the first Democratic presidential debate in June.
His campaign hosted more than 100 watch parties in 37 states, including each of the first four caucus and primary states. Rapid-response staffers were quick to hit social media with the highlights and flood reporters’ inboxes: “Key Points: Glowing reviews for Buttigieg.” And thousands of grassroots fundraisers — volunteers willing to recruit other donors — were “trained up on how best to use their own personal referral links and fundraise from their networks” during and after the forum, a campaign official said.
On Monday, the team sprung into action again, pushing out video clips and other information to a surge of Democrats and others newly interested in Buttigieg. And Buttigieg was scheduled to host a teleconference call Monday evening as a reward for his most prolific volunteer fundraisers.
“Formats like last night really play to his strength,” Lis Smith, a Buttigieg communications adviser, told BuzzFeed News on Monday afternoon. “In politics, you generally think of trying to control the questions, the settings, the audience. We have absolutely the opposite imperative. We believe putting him out there and letting him engage with people in an organic and authentic way — it’s not only something we’re not afraid of, it’s something we see as a strength.”
Many political reporters, operatives, and others who for whatever reason were parked in front of CNN on a Sunday evening agreed. For Buttigieg, the 37-year-old millennial mayor with a hard-to-pronounce name — Tapper’s first question to him Sunday was whether it was boot-edge-edge, as the mayor says, or buddha-judge, as his husband does — the forum was a chance to introduce himself. (A Monmouth University poll released Monday measured Buttigieg’s support among Democrats at less than 1%.)
“He’ll be a little less of a long shot tomorrow,” David Axelrod, the Democratic strategist who helped steer Barack Obama to the White House, said Sunday evening on Twitter.
Even with a viral moment, a CNN town hall on a Sunday night is relatively low-impact this early in the 2020 cycle. What Buttigieg needs — and what his campaign strategy seems particularly geared to — is a series of viral moments on progressively larger stages. And that means he needs to be in the debates. The Democratic National Committee has set polling and fundraising thresholds for candidates to meet if they want to be included in the first two. Buttigieg would need to reach 1% in at least three polls or receive donations from at least 65,000 donors from 20 states, with at least 200 unique donors from each state. And even that, with the DNC capping the number of participants at 20, might not be enough to qualify.
“If you like what you saw, if you want to make sure I’m on the debate stage, I hope you’ll encourage a friend to chip in whatever they’d like to,” Buttigieg said in a short video that he tweeted after the CNN town hall, alongside a request for $3 contributions.
Axelrod’s tweet was among the bushel of compliments Buttigieg retweeted after the CNN appearance. There was this from Dan Balz, the Washington Post’s political tastemaker: “In his CNN town hall, @PeteButtigieg highlights the value of listening to questioners and responding with clarity and depth. Q and A on a high plain. Refreshing.” And this from Bradley Whitford, the actor known for The West Wing and Get Out: “Every time out, @PeteButtigieg crushes it. Every. Time.”
Producing a viral moment is kind of an oxymoron. The videos that capture the most attention are the ones that show something spontaneous or organic — something unexpected. Beto O’Rourke, a potential 2020 candidate, did it in his unsuccessful Texas Senate bid last year when he defended NFL players who kneel during the national anthem to protest racial injustice.
In a year and in a field where diversity is a selling point, a white man from the Midwest is hardly novel. But Buttigieg and his believers see his age, his backstory, and his personality being uniquely well-suited to the social media moment. “I know that I have the Maltese American/gay/millennial/war veteran/mayor lane all to myself,” Buttigieg joked to an approving audience last month in Parma, Ohio, where he was promoting his new book.
Said Benjamin, the Columbia mayor: “He’s a candidate that ought not be underestimated.”