The ordinarily polished Mayor Pete suddenly was casual.
“Who knows,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told Vox Media’s Code Conference when asked last week about the idea of running for president again.
“You don’t run for an office — well, maybe some people do — because you always wanted to,” he said. “But I think you run for an office because you notice something about the office, and something about yourself, and something about the moment that adds up.”
“So who knows what the future is going to call me,” he said.
What started three years ago as a longshot bid by a college town mayor for the most coveted slot in Democratic politics turned into major upsets in key early states and a Cabinet secretary position in the Biden administration.
Now, less than two months from the midterms, some Democrats are speculating about what a second Buttigieg run could look like.
“What he was able to accomplish in the Democratic primary for president is unbelievable,” said Joe Caiazzo, a Democratic strategist who worked on Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) presidential campaigns in 2016 and in 2020, including a senior role in New Hampshire. “Mayor of a small college town is able to connect with voters in such a way that catapults him to the top tier in the first two states.”
For now, Buttigieg is keeping his cards close to his chest. But the former South Bend mayor has remained visible since first angling for the nomination in 2020, and fellow Democrats have taken note.
Buttigieg has been the public face of the bipartisan infrastructure bill President Biden signed into law in November, one of his earliest political wins that carried limping Democrats through tough times when other legislation was crumbling on Capitol Hill. That position allowed Buttigieg to move freely across the country, touching down in some of the same states he frequented during his presidential bid.
He’s been to New Hampshire and Nevada, critical early contests on the nominating calendar, as well as a handful of general election battlegrounds like Ohio, Florida and Minnesota for the administration’s “Building a Better America Tour.”
While those late August stops were billed as official government activity, they also gave Buttigieg a chance to reconnect with voters should he decide to launch another campaign.
“Pete won Iowa, he came very close in New Hampshire, and immediately following the primary became a part of the Democratic Party infrastructure in a way that allowed him to crisscross the country on behalf of the Biden administration and be the deliverer of good news,” said Caiazzo. “And you’re coming with checks.”
Buttigieg, now 40, recently moved from Indiana to the swing state of Michigan, and he’s maintained the media’s curiosity.
In addition to his considerable miles on the trail, he’s emerged as a leading voice criticizing some of the nation’s top airlines — and vowing to take steps to improve passengers’ experiences — at a time when delays, cancellations and what many see as poor performance have left travelers deeply frustrated.
He sent a letter to one airline last month on behalf of Americans voicing concerns about the quality of their travel experience. And his requests didn’t stop there.
Buttigieg further pressed the airline companies to do more for travelers, recently asking that they cover expenses like lodging and meals for delayed flights. The Transportation Department unveiled a public database to hold the corporations accountable for their travel issues, which White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said “vastly improved their plans.”
Buttigieg’s profile continued to rise as a result. Many Democrats view him both as a helpful ally and a bit of a technocrat within the administration, who could become a potential replacement for Biden if he declines to seek the White House again.
Biden has always said that he will run, and him sticking to that plan seems more plausible now than in previous months. The president has managed to claw out of a dismal stretch of bad polls that made a midterm wipeout look likely and a primary challenge seem appealing to some Democrats not too long ago.
The president’s luck appeared to turn after he signed the Inflation Reduction Act and kicked off the post-Labor Day campaign season with an impassioned speech about democracy in Philadelphia. His approval rating averages 43 percent in the latest RealClearPolitics national survey aggregate, which is higher than many other points in his term.
Still, the idea of another Democratic candidate vying to be the nominee is compelling to some political operatives and voters. Buttigieg in particular has sustained the interest of some of the same voters he courted last cycle, including in New Hampshire.
A University of New Hampshire Survey Center Granite poll from July shows the Transportation secretary narrowly beating Biden in a hypothetical contest. A separate survey from UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies found that a majority of voters do not want Biden to seek reelection, with Vice President Harris and Sanders coming in as second and third place choices and Buttigieg also receiving double-digit support.
“I think he’s definitely in a better position than he was, but, still [an] open question if it’s ‘enough’ yet,” said one top Democratic operative who asked to speak without attribution to discuss possible Biden replacements like Buttigieg.
“His comms, interviews, events, etc. are all superb, and he [definitely] now has more substance than just as mayor,” the operative said. “But still a big question if that lets you leap straight to president without holding any other offices first.”
Other Democrats are less optimistic about his chances in a changing Democratic Party, particularly when there are also women and people of color waiting in the wings.
The 50-50 Senate has failed to pass voting rights legislation, frustrating many people from diverse constituencies who are greatly impacted by voting suppression laws, and one of Buttigieg’s biggest criticisms in 2020 was that he failed to catch on with minority populations, including Black voters.
“He would be moronic,” one former Buttigieg campaign staffer told The Hill. “The idea a white man would position himself over the VP. He should run in Michigan and win a local election first.”
“He will get destroyed in the media and by activists if he runs [and] if VP Harris does,” the former staffer said.
If Biden does not run, one key endorser from South Carolina, Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), has already preemptively endorsed Harris. While she has struggled at times to maintain a positive standing with the public, some party voices say she’s a closer natural successor to the president than Buttigieg.
But others think there could be room for both of them. The idea that Harris could strike a deal with Buttigieg to be her own vice president has also been floated.
“She’s not going to freeze the field,” the Democratic operative said about Harris. “I would say I’m 90 percent certain he would still jump in and run against her.”
“The crazy smart move,” the operative went on, “would be for her to run and see if she can get him right away to run as VP so that they can clear the field right now.”