Pete Buttigieg has surprised everyone by dropping out — but was it because of a back-room deal?

Theories range from the vaguely conspiratorial — the Bernie-hating DNC want to back a moderate, so told Klobuchar, Biden and Buttigieg that one of them had to drop out — to the slightly more likely

Holly Baxter
New York
Monday 02 March 2020 02:09 GMT
Pete Buttigieg Suspends Presidential Campaign

Many were surprised by Mayor Pete’s announcement today that he was suspending his campaign. Less than a month ago, amid a chaotic caucus in Iowa, he proclaimed to his supporters that they had “made history” and "shocked the nation". For a brief moment, when he and Bernie were neck-and-neck in Iowa and New Hampshire, many of us believed a President Buttigieg was a serious possibility.

But South Carolina was the first real test of whether the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana had managed to connect with the African American voters he’d been accused of failing. At the ballot box, their judgment was unequivocal. He had not done enough. Exit polls showed younger black voters were slightly more likely to give him the benefit of the doubt, but almost no middle-aged black voters came out for him at all. They didn’t know who he was, he hadn’t put decades of work in with their communities, and he had blundered when faced with racial controversies in South Bend.

Despite a less than encouraging performance in South Carolina, however, most of us were expecting Mayor Pete to stay on for Super Tuesday in two days’ time. Just yesterday, on Saturday morning, his campaign manager was talking about their Super Tuesday strategy to a reporter at the New York Times. It’s no exaggeration to say that something must have changed overnight.

Multiple theories are afoot, ranging from the vaguely conspiratorial — the Bernie-hating DNC want to back a moderate, so told Klobuchar, Biden and Buttigieg that one of them had to drop out — to the slightly more likely — a back-room deal made with a candidate still in the race. Has Pete agreed to run as VP on a joint ticket with Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar or Elizabeth Warren in an effort to prevent Bernie Sanders from rising easily to the top? It’s possible. If it’s true, then my bet would be on Warren as his running-mate: she has been publicly distancing herself from Sanders in the past few weeks, while at the same time quietly winding back a lot of her most left-leaning proposals, including Medicare for All. Warren has been struggling in caucuses and primaries, but has promised to stay in until the Democratic convention in July; so she’s either bluffing or she’s been concocting a strategy to inject new energy into her campaign with someone else behind the scenes. If it’s not a case of a VP deal, however, it could be a much more straightforward and less risky case of throwing his weight behind Biden and guaranteeing himself a prestigious cabinet position in the event of a future Biden administration.

Equally, Pete may genuinely have no plans for this presidential race. At 38 years old, he was only just old enough to qualify to run for president in the first place (the highest office in the land is reserved for over-35s only.) In debates, Buttigieg made the most of his youthful status, somewhat mischievously interrupting both Biden and Bernie at least once to say, “When I’m as old as you, I hope to look back and think…” Unfortunately, leaning so heavily on his age may have backfired. It underlined his lack of experience; being responsible for a city of 100,000 people is very different to being responsible for a country of 327 million, and few Democrats are in the mood for a gamble after Donald Trump.

Buttigieg is young enough to hold back and wait until he’s accrued a bit more of that vital political experience now that he’s made a national name for himself. No one can deny that he is a fantastic orator and a solid debater. This first presidential run may well be just the beginning of his outreach, and we may see a President Buttigieg in the White House yet. If he is planning a future run, then he may have decided that quitting while he was ahead rather than facing further damaging losses in Super Tuesday would be reputationally smarter, providing him with a springboard from which to launch a similar campaign in 2024 or 2028.

Why go this far, take all those donations, attend all those rallies and print out all that merchandise if the plan was to drop out all along then, you may wonder? I doubt this was the plan all along, but in the past few weeks, Buttigieg and his advisers may have sat down and talked about the fact that Bernie Sanders has an excellent shot at being the Democratic nominee this year. Being the moderate who blocked Bernie in 2016 did nothing for Hillary Clinton. It would be risky for Pete as well. And if Bernie did end up losing badly to Trump in November — if a “reds under the bed” socialist scare campaign does serious damage to the Senator from Vermont and the entire party with him — then Buttigieg may well want to dissociate himself with the Democrats of 2020, in the same way that many British Labour politicians sought to distance themselves from the party during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Walking away now means he protects himself either way: he avoids the ire of the Bernie Bros and he avoids being painted with the socialist brush during his long political career ahead.

In a moving speech in Indiana tonight opened by his husband Chasten, Buttigieg declared that he felt he had a political "responsibility" to step away, and spoke of supporting a candidate with a "broad base" (so, not Sanders) who offered a "new kind of politics" (which didn't exactly sound like Biden either.) He spoke humorously and energetically. His supporters chanted, "2024, 2024!" while he put on a bashful smile.

For more clues about why he made his decision tonight, we’ll have to keep an eye out for who he endorses after Super Tuesday.

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