Pete Buttigieg impressed pundits with his CNN town hall performance Sunday night, giving the South Bend, Ind., mayor a much-needed boost in a crowded Democratic presidential field.
Since he announced the formation of a presidential exploratory committee in January, the little-known Buttigieg has garnered few national headlines.
He’s been a lower-tier candidate, polling well behind former Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenHickenlooper and Inslee: What the Western governors have to offer in 2020 Sherrod Brown: Biden’s potential White House bid had ‘zero’ influence on decision not to run Biden holds slim lead over Sanders in Iowa: poll MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersBret Baier calls out ‘Fox derangement syndrome’ after DNC blocks Fox News from hosting debate Gabbard defends Omar: I don’t believe she intended ‘to cause any offense’ Dems face big questions on tax plans for 2020 MORE (I-Vt.) as well as Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisGabbard defends Omar: I don’t believe she intended ‘to cause any offense’ Dems face big questions on tax plans for 2020 Trump campaign adviser dismisses White House diversity question, asks about black people in Lincoln admin MORE (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenGabbard defends Omar: I don’t believe she intended ‘to cause any offense’ Dems face big questions on tax plans for 2020 Most 2020 Dems reject socialism label MORE (D-Mass.).
But after seeing him in prime time Sunday, pundits and Democratic operatives argued the 37-year-old was worth a second look.
“Not sure whom I will support yet but going to make a donation to Pete Buttigieg to help make sure he can participate in the DNC debates,” Brian Fallon, who served as a spokesman for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBret Baier calls out ‘Fox derangement syndrome’ after DNC blocks Fox News from hosting debate Democrats have debate delusion that leaves them wildly outfoxed Top Senate Dem: Sanders ‘off to a solid start’ in 2020 race MORE‘s 2016 presidential bid, tweeted after watching Buttigieg in the CNN town hall.
David Axelrod, who served as chief strategist to former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaDemocrats have debate delusion that leaves them wildly outfoxed 2020 will pit Trump’s wins against Dems’ dreams Don’t sacrifice US-Israeli relations to DC’s political games MORE, wrote on Twitter that he has “rarely seen a candidate make better use of a televised Town Hall.”
“Crisp, thoughtful and relatable,” Axelrod wrote. “He’ll be a little less of a long shot tomorrow.”
Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist and co-host of Showtime’s “The Circus” also took notice.
“For a guy who hardly anyone knows, with no $$, and a name no one can pronounce, @PeteButtigieg has monstrous buzz,” McKinnon wrote. “Says a lot about his raw talent that he’d stand out this much this early.”
Buttigieg scored points and made instant headlines during the town hall by calling Vice President Pence a “cheerleader for the porn star presidency.”
“How could he allow himself to become the cheerleader for the porn star presidency? Is it that he stopped believing in scripture when he started believing in Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpButtigieg: ‘I have more years of government experience under my belt’ than Trump Tucker Carlson says he won’t apologize for comments in resurfaced radio interview Buttigieg calls Pence ‘cheerleader for the porn star presidency’ MORE?” Buttigieg asked as the cameras rolled.
But Buttigieg had more than one applause line Sunday night. The people impressed with his performance argued that he showed off a knowledge of foreign and domestic policy issues and intelligently answered questions on a host of topics. In the process, he highlighted his experience as a mayor, as a member of the military deployed to Afghanistan and as a married gay man.
Buttigieg received less than 1 percent support in a Monmouth University poll released Monday that showed Biden, who has yet to enter the race, and Sanders at the head of the 2020 pack.
He lacks the campaign infrastructure rivals such as Sanders enjoy.
“At some point, you need a real operation to organize on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire to help you weather and move past any missteps or scrutiny that will happen,” one Democratic strategist said.
But a source close to the campaign said Buttigieg is “feeling enthused” after his town hall appearance. While the campaign is small — it has just 20 staffers — it is also nimble, and Buttigieg is in the process of building a larger operation in the early primary states.
Buttigieg also gave himself something to build upon Sunday night.
“Each time I watch him, I am continuously impressed,” said one strategist who worked on a few recent presidential campaigns, adding that Buttigieg “keeps exceeding expectations.”
“I have real questions about if someone can jump from a smallish but iconic city mayor to [president], but he has earned a spot in the conversation and will be on the VP shortlist if he doesn’t emerge as the nominee,” the source added.
The source close to the Buttigieg campaign pointed to the 130 watch parties across 37 states that took place Sunday evening to highlight the mayor’s support and how it could grow.
The watch parties were all organized by the Buttigieg campaign and its supporters.
Buttigieg’s grass-roots fundraising team, comprised of more than 5,000 supporters, also used the town hall to train up on how to fundraise, the source close to the campaign said, adding that the campaign will continue to use a strategy of digital and grass-roots organizing built from the ground up.
Will Buttigieg’s exploratory committee sprout into a full-fledged campaign?
“He said that all signs have been positive,” the source said, adding that the Sunday night performance is exactly what he needed.