Buttigieg Hopes to Own Moderate Lane in Nomination Fight

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Pete Buttigieg likes chicken sandwiches, and his appetite for fried fast food has helped make him a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.

More specifically, in March of last year, the openly gay politician told a reporter that he didn’t mind Chick-fil-A, even though the Christian owners of that chain opposed gay marriage. What’s more, Buttigieg called the LGBTQ community’s boycott of the outlets “virtue signaling.”

"I do not approve of their politics,” he said of Chick-fil-A during an interview with BuzzFeed News, “but I kind of like their chicken.”

Outrage followed from some progressives, along with applause from others — exactly the kind of viral moment the then-little-known candidate needed.

Nine months later, Chick-fil-A has changed its policies and started donating to pro-LGBTQ charities. The former mayor of South Bend, Ind., has meanwhile become a contender by aggressively occupying the moderate lane in the 2020 Democratic race.

Chicken sandwiches don’t vote, and that was kind of Buttigieg’s whole point. But moderates do, and by tacking carefully between the left and the center, the Midwestern pol has climbed to third place in Iowa polling, surpassing more senior candidates with more established credentials.

Just how much of a moderate do his supporters believe he is? The day before the Iowa caucuses, Buttigieg gives them an idea. Again.

“You don’t have to choose between the status quo over here and revolution over here,” he told Chuck Todd on Sunday morning, repeating a line from his stump speech for a special edition of “Meet the Press.” He continued: “We actually have a pretty well-shared sense of values in this party. Even from the progressive left through to independents and some forward-thinking Republicans. But we've got to be ready to galvanize that majority and not let it get polarized.”

Buttigieg likes to talk about that fissure in American politics, and he believes he can appeal to what he calls “the future former Republicans.” His supporters, most of them dyed-in-the-wool Democrats, also like it. They say it makes him more electable.

“My parents voted for Donald Trump, and my wife’s parents also voted for Trump,” says Kara Clark of Norwalk after hearing Buttigieg speak at his final Sunday rally. “Being a gay couple, that is really, really hard for us to wrap our heads around.” If Clark’s preferred candidate wins the nomination, his moderate brand could help bridge the gap. “It gives me a little bit of hope,” she says, “for a better conversation.”

Long before Buttigieg was a candidate for president, the now-former mayor tells audiences, he was knocking on doors in Iowa for another little-known candidate named Barack Obama. A dozen years have passed, and his supporters are under no illusion over who is more radical.

“He is more progressive than Barack, but that’s where we need to be with the Trump administration right now,” says Branwen Floden, who caucused for Bernie Sanders in 2016 but has thrown her support behind “Mayor Pete.” She now believes that the prospect of too much change too quickly could sink Democratic chances. “Some people are afraid of letting it swing too far.”

And it is true: Buttigieg does embrace a progressive ideology that would have made him unelectable only a couple election cycles ago. He advances a health care plan, dubbed “Medicare for All who want it,” that is more sweeping than Obamacare. He pushes for a plan to address climate change that would have been unthinkable for the last Democratic president. He advocates for gun controls that surely make him untenable for any card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association ever.

All the same, Buttigieg isn’t all that different from the rest of his competitors in terms of ideology.

“I don’t think he is a moderate standing alone, because he has similar policies,” Floden says, running through the list of policy ideas that make up his platform. “It is a little different, but I don’t think the ideas are that different than other candidates.” The difference, she says, is that he holds his platform just “a little closer to the chest.”

This must be part of the plan, concludes Amelia Fox, a graduate student from the University of North Carolina. She came here to study the caucuses, and she believes that Buttigieg has a goal: be progressive enough without offending the sensibilities of middle-of-the-road voters. This way, she says, the candidate could “get a lot of the independents, maybe even some Republicans, who would never go for [Elizabeth] Warren or Sanders.”

This thesis proves true if Jason Graham is a case study. He was once a Republican and a roughneck in the oil fields. “Dick Cheney was great for us,” he says of his time pumping fossil fuel. Now he plans to caucus for Buttigieg, the culmination of a conversion on environmental issues.  

“I always thought that a president was someone that you should want to emulate,” he says, “someone that you would want your children to aspire to be.”

Buttigieg fits the profile, in Graham’s estimation: “That is exactly Pete.” He doesn’t offend sensibilities. On policy, he offers a contrast from the rest of the more aggressively progressive White House aspirants. And this is enough for his supporters. They want progress, but they are not prepared to sacrifice a shot at removing Trump from the Oval Office for any pronounced articulation of wokeness.

It is a pragmatic calculation. It is also a change from an earlier election.

When Obama campaigned in Iowa, and even after winning here, he was still considered a long shot. His ideas, some observers said at the time, were too radical. A dozen years later, the first openly gay presidential candidate, a man married to another man as the result of a policy that Obama-the-president endorsed but Obama-the-candidate shied away from, has a chance to win here.

Buttigieg embraces progressive values while preaching moderation. Starting Monday night, voters get their chance to weigh in on the appeal of that message.

In an earlier version of this story, Kara Clark was misidentified as Amelia Fox.

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