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Pete Buttigieg is ending his presidential bid

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/2/2020 Chelsea Janes, Amy Wang
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Video by Reuters

Pete Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Ind., who saw a meteoric rise from virtual unknown to top-tier contender and became the first openly gay candidate to make a high-profile presidential run, ended his campaign Sunday as he confronted the reality that his prospects of victory had all but collapsed.

Buttigieg’s decision came shortly before Super Tuesday, the biggest primary day of the year, at a time when the Democratic race shows signs of becoming a race between Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former vice president Joe Biden, with Biden occupying a centrist position that Buttigieg had hoped to make his own.

Buttigieg struggled to win support from black voters, a key pillar of the Democratic coalition and a vulnerability that was emphasized Saturday in South Carolina, where he finished fourth.

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The normally stoic Buttigieg appeared to be steadying himself throughout his farewell remarks in his hometown of South Bend, bringing to an end what was for a time an electrifying candidacy. “After a year of going everywhere, meeting everyone, defying every expectation, seeking every vote, the truth is that the path has narrowed to a close for our candidacy, if not for our cause,” Buttigieg said.

He also referred to the pioneering nature of his run, saying, “We sent a message to every kid out there wondering if whatever marks them out as different means they are somehow destined to be less than. [They saw] that someone who once felt that exact same way can become a leading American presidential candidate — with his husband at his side.”

Buttigieg’s departure may help add some clarity to a Democratic presidential field that at one point included more than two dozen candidates, including an array of senators and governors, but has dwindled to just a handful.

At first it seemed Buttigieg might be one of the survivors, as he won the Iowa caucuses and came in second in New Hampshire. But despite attracting enormous attention, significant support and often enthusiastic crowds, Buttigieg was not polling well in the upcoming primary states and never found a way to reverse the antipathy he generated in the black community.

Earlier Sunday, his campaign held a call with reporters in which senior adviser Michael Halle and deputy campaign manager Hari Sevugan made the case that while Buttigieg likely wouldn’t win any of the 14 states that vote Tuesday, he could still accumulate enough delegates to keep Sanders’s lead to a minimum.

But his campaign has also been realistic about its poll numbers, which allowed him to declare victory in Iowa before official results came in. His Sunday exit suggests his campaign’s internal numbers showed Buttigieg would not be able to stay within striking distance of Sanders.

An aide to Buttigieg’s campaign said Buttigieg and his advisers looked at their models after South Carolina results came in, and they discovered their path had narrowed.

Democratic presidential candidate and former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg walks to speaks with members of the media, Sunday, March 1, 2020, in Plains, Ga. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) © Provided by Associated Press Democratic presidential candidate and former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg walks to speaks with members of the media, Sunday, March 1, 2020, in Plains, Ga. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) “Essentially the reason he is suspending his campaign is the reason he started the campaign: His goal is to defeat the president and bring a new kind of politics to our country,” a Buttigieg aide said. “He thought his candidacy would be best vehicle to do that. And when it became clear his candidacy was not the most viable vehicle to do that, he stepped aside to make sure [Democrats] could still achieve those things.”

Buttigieg called Biden shortly after news of his departure broke, according to two Biden aides who said the candidates exchanged voicemails but had yet to connect. Biden will be in Norfolk, Va., for a rally Sunday night.

Buttigieg’s exit leaves several unanswered questions, chief among them whether he will endorse Biden or any of the other remaining contenders, and whether his staffers will shift over to another campaign. It also leaves unanswered the question of Buttigieg’s own future.

Buttigieg made history by becoming the first openly gay candidate to earn delegates for the presidential nomination in a major political party. He also broke barriers by making his marriage to his husband, Chasten, a major part of his campaign.

Chasten normally joins his husband on stage after rallies, but Saturday night, the Buttigiegs lingered in a noticeably longer hug than usual — a rare sign of the emotional toll the campaign was taking on Pete Buttigieg, who knew then the end was near.

Chasten was also the first on stage at Buttigieg’s South Bend event Sunday, and he delivered an emotional introduction in which he told the crowd his husband had helped him believe in himself again, and that he urged him to run for president because “ I knew there were other kids in this country who needed to believe in themselves, too.”

Yet Buttigieg did not make the trailblazing nature of his campaign central to his pitch, and it often got lost in the realities of day-to-day campaigning. Not until Buttigieg won the Iowa caucuses did interviewers begin asking him more directly about America’s readiness for a gay president and what his candidacy might mean to gay Americans.

But LGBTQ leaders had no doubt that Buttigieg’s candidacy had widened the path for gay Americans in politics and other areas of life in the United States.

“Mayor Buttigieg ran an incredible campaign that broke glass ceilings and inspired countless LGBTQ people to run for office and enter public service,” Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David said in a statement. “His history-making, open and honest campaign gave representation to a community that has been for far too long pushed out of the spotlight.”

Also the youngest candidate in the Democratic race, Buttigieg formally launched his campaign last April from a formerly shuttered Studebaker plant in South Bend. His pitch was that his youth and lack of Washington political experience were assets, not drawbacks — and something about that resonated.

“I think he felt it was the right time because of the sense of jaundice President Trump had created,” said former Obama adviser David Axelrod, who was in touch with Buttigieg at various times throughout his campaign.

“He’s a positive, unifying figure, and he’s as kind and thoughtful and reflective as Trump is the opposite. His whole history is so different.”

In early interviews and campaign speeches, Buttigieg was fond of saying he was the only “left-handed, Maltese-American, Episcopalian, gay millennial war veteran” in the race — a tongue-in-cheek way of condensing his biography but also of introducing himself to the public.

Outside of winning two terms as mayor of South Bend, his highest-profile elections had been a failed 2017 bid for the chair of the Democratic National Committee and running for Indiana state treasurer in 2010, when he lost to the Republican incumbent by more than 20 points.

Nevertheless, with an aggressive, no-holds-barred media exposure strategy, Buttigieg managed to rise in the public consciousness over 2019 and soon began raising more money and polling higher than many of his opponents who were governors or sitting members of Congress. Buttigieg’s obvious intelligence and eloquence excited many Democratic voters looking for a powerful counter-force to President Trump.

He promised to usher in “generational change” to the White House and deliberately avoided releasing detailed plans at first, though he spoke of big ideas like abolishing the electoral college and restructuring the Supreme Court.

Along the way, his use of South Bend as the backbone of his experience was both a boon to his candidacy and also a threat to undo his campaign at times. After a white police officer shot a black South Bend resident in June, Buttigieg was widely criticized for his handling of the matter — as well as his general relationship with the South Bend Police Department and the city’s minority residents. The shooting set off weeks of protests, briefly taking Buttigieg off the campaign trail.

Still, his profile continued to rise, and by last fall, Buttigieg had shifted to a more moderate lane as he tried to seize a middle ground between Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), whom he targeted repeatedly over universal healthcare, arguing that his approach — adding a public option that he dubbed “Medicare for All Who Want It” — was superior because it left “choice” to the American people.

“The way we think this shapes up is, if you want the most ideological, far-out candidate possible, you’ve got your answer. You want the most Washington candidate possible, you’ve got your answer,” Buttigieg said in November. “Everybody else, I think, can come our way. I think that’s almost everybody.”

The strategy initially paid off. Buttigieg went on to narrowly win the Iowa caucuses in February and came in second in New Hampshire. His troubles appealing to minority voters, however, hampered him as the race moved on to more diverse states. He came in third in Nevada and fourth in South Carolina, winning over only two percent of the state’s black voters.

Still, his campaign vowed to press on through Super Tuesday, arguing that Buttigieg was the best-positioned moderate candidate to challenge Sanders. Buttigieg increasingly targeted the Vermont senator, warning that nominating Sanders would be detrimental for down-ballot races.

Buttigieg accumulated 26 delegates in the race — the most ever for an openly gay candidate, and far more than anyone expected at the beginning of his longshot bid. After strong showings in predominantly white states, Buttigieg’s results began to dimish as the race moved to more diverse electorates. Ultimately, he decided they were unlikely to improve.

“We have a responsibility to consider the effect of remaining in this race any further,” Buttigieg told the crowd in South Bend, adding, “and so we must recognize that at this point in the race, the best way to keep faith with those goals and ideas is to step aside and help bring our party and our country together.”

The crowd interrupted him with a new chant: “2024! 2024!”

amy.wang@washpost.com

chelsea.janes@washpost.com

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