On October 18, 2019, the Institute of Politics (IOP) welcomed its first 2020 presidential candidate: Pete Buttigieg, a Democrat and Mayor of South Bend, Indiana. He has previously visited the University in 2014 and this past February. This time, the conversation was moderated by IOP director David Axelrod, who began by remarking to Buttigieg that “it seems like you’re in bigger rooms now.” There were certainly more people in the packed Mandel Hall—which holds 994 people—than in the Quadrangle Club, which hosted Butttigieg in February. The shift in venue size reflects Buttigieg’s growing visibility since announcing his candidacy in April 2019; indeed, he has already qualified for the upcoming Democratic debate on December 19.
Buttigieg’s campaign is premised on the idea that “we can enact very bold reforms and also do it in a way that can unify an American majority.” In particular, Buttigieg has anchored his campaign and his key message of unity around reforming democratic structures. He has proved appealing to liberal, more affluent white Democrats, but polls show him lagging behind Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Curiously, these four candidates are split in their stances on unity. Sanders and Warren are selective about the blocs they want to unify, prioritizing the bottom 90 percent and progressive Democrats over attempting broad-based unification. Conversely, Biden’s calls for unity are aimed at Democrats across the spectrum, and Americans in general. This is not too far off from Buttigieg’s message for unifying America: both assume that the American electorate has enough in common to unify around a peacemaking moderate candidate. This division raises questions around Buttigieg’s strategy: will sweeping calls for unification triumph in the 2020 election, and if so, is structural reform the winning approach?
Buttigieg believes that President Donald Trump’s election was symptomatic of America’s dysfunctional democracy: Trump won despite losing the popular vote, partly because his anti-establishment rhetoric played on frustrations across the political spectrum. Buttigieg’s proposals for fixing the system that enabled Trump’s presidency, then, include ending the Electoral College, depoliticizing and expanding the Supreme Court, and establishing independent redistricting commissions. Not only is Buttigieg calling for Americans to unify around this theoretically non-partisan issue of democracy, but he is also hoping that democratic reform will equalize political representation and unify Americans by ensuring that everyone’s vote counts equally regardless of where they live.
But for Buttigieg to implement his ambitions of democratic reform, he must first overcome the very system he hopes to change. First, it’s worth examining Buttigieg’s assumption that structural reform really will motivate turnout. While Buttigieg has a wide array of issue-focused policies, his platform rests upon democratic reform. By positing democracy as the most fundamental issue, Buttigieg attempts to establish an identity distinct from the simpler progressive/conservative dichotomy that characterizes issues-focused candidates like Sanders. However, when Axelrod asked about the visibility of structural reform compared to policy issues, Buttigieg acknowledged that voters pay much more attention to policy issues. If attention is a proxy metric for what voters care about, this casts doubt on whether voters care enough about structural reform to choose a president running on it.
The degree to which Buttigieg has emphasized political reform could be sufficiently novel to generate interest from more issues-focused voters, whose engagement could be sustained by his diverse (if less mentioned) set of issue-focused policies. Buttigieg’s appeal to more ideological voters may also be boosted by similar calls for democratic reforms from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. However, given that public attention centers more around Medicare than democratic reform, Buttigieg’s platform is unlikely to appeal to single-issue voters.
Highly-engaged voters may be drawn to Warren’s more comprehensive issue-focused platform, complete with funding proposals, or be skeptical of Buttigieg’s commitment to his purpoted stances. Furthermore, the ambitious scope of Buttigieg’s proposed reforms could turn away voters concerned that Buttigieg’s plan will face backlash, similar to how Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1937 bill to appoint additional Supreme Court justices for every sitting justice older than seventy faced immense political opposition, never making it to a vote in Congress.
Yet this idealism might be a winning combination if paired with a more abstract policy of democratic reform. When Axelrod asked Buttigieg how he planned to reinvest voters with a common sense of purpose, Buttigieg responded, “the issue behind my issue is democracy.” Unbiased justices, fair elections, and a working democracy seem integral to the traditional values of American democracy. If Buttigieg’s rhetoric puts democracy itself at stake, then his ambition could be a strength rather than a weakness. On the other hand, both Senator Cory Booker and Marianne Williamson had similarly elevated messages around unity and love, yet have failed to gain meaningful traction in the polls. Sanders and Warren, meanwhile, have more aggressive approaches grounded in representing the working- and middle-class, suggesting that hopeful idealism could be less popular this cycle.
Focusing on democracy, rather than a more partisan issue, has the advantage of potentially appealing to any voter regardless of identity or ideology. The broad appeal of a less polarizing issue is important because Buttigieg believes that most Democrats don’t lean as far left as Sanders or Warren. Commenting on their Medicare For All proposal, Buttigieg claimed, “a lot of the people, including Democrats, who would tell the pollsters candidates that they’re for ‘Medicare For All,’ what they mean is actually what I’m proposing [Medicare For All Who Want It]. My competitors say we want something further, which most Americans actually don’t want.”
At worst, trying to unite voters around a non-polarizing message is inoffensive, and at best, theoretically sound. The conventional idea of an electable candidate rests on Median Voter Theorem, which economist Anthony Downs developed in 1957 to explain why politicians seemed to gravitate towards the center. Its name comes from Downs’ claim that “politicians take political positions as far as possible near the center in order to appeal to as many potential voters as possible,” so ultimately the median (i.e. centrist) voter “wins.” Buttigieg seems to be applying the same logic of appealing to as many voters as possible by not only moving towards the center but also hoping that democracy unites across the political spectrum.
To sway remaining Democratic voters, such as the deeply progressive minority block (39 percent of Medicare-For-All supporters think private insurance will no longer be an option), Buttigieg draws upon the common—but not uniquely—Democratic fear of re-electing Trump. Buttigieg has intertwined Trump’s election with “the failure of our political system,” reminding Democrats of the general election and of the importance of bipartisan appeal. Ideally, although unlikely in the highly-partisan 2020 election, political reform would be sufficiently removed from ideology to broadly appeal across the political spectrum and entice both Democrats and Republicans to break from more partisan candidates in the general election. However, this supposed bipartisanship is in tension with the Democrat-oriented implication that Buttigieg’s policies would prevent an event like Trump’s election from ever happening again.
At the same time, the 2016 presidential election raised countless questions about the viability of unity which still surround Buttigieg’s campaign. Hillary Clinton was the more moderate Democratic candidate: according to Median Voter Theorem, this should have been the perfect situation to unite Democrats across the spectrum. So why didn’t Median Voter Theorem hold?
Perhaps it’s because the theorem assumes that more ideological voters will continue to turn out after their preferred candidate loses, which did not happen in 2016. The theorem assumes that most party members can agree on some central issue, which overlooks single-issue voters and other political dimensions like establishment ties. Regardless, the theorem’s conventional wisdom doesn’t hold if the electorate is so politically polarized that moving towards the center results in losing voters. Whether America is truly polarized remains an open question—some political pundits point to polls suggesting that party lines can predict a whole host of beliefs, while others argue that the divide is artificially created by the two-party system. Either way, unifying Democrats doesn’t seem as simple as campaigning on unifying features such as democratic reform or Trump. Buttigieg’s campaign faces the very structural issues it hopes to dismantle, and if it deters progressives by focusing on moderates, there is a real risk that if nominated, Buttigieg could lose the general election.
Speaking to the important symbolic role of the president, Buttigieg declared, “We’ve got to agree that we’re the same America.” While healing partisan rifts sounds good after a Trump presidency, America might not be on the same page yet. Alternatively, the sheer quantity of ways in which Buttigieg attempts to court voters may be enough to overcome the barriers of 2016.
Buttigieg positions himself as having progressive policies but not necessarily identifying as a progressive, which could be a balance that ultimately encourages more progressives to vote than to stay at home. He has positioned himself as the antithesis of Trump both in policy intended to temper populism as well as in character: he is charismatic, with a consistent narrative that is theoretically promising, appeals to both millennials (the second largest voter base) and older generations, and carries a feel-good sentiment of unity. Above all, Butttigieg keeps telling us that America’s very democracy at stake, and if being a symbol for partisan unity won’t work then maybe being a symbol for democracy will.