CHARLESTON, S.C. — Pete Buttigieg has tailored much of his campaign message to the idea that he is best able to speak “flyover country,” in addition to all those other languages. As the onetime leader of the fourth-largest city in Indiana, he understands this most crucial of regions — the Midwest — that supposedly represents the most “authentic” part of the American experience. He fashions himself an “outsider,” always contrasting his experience with the “Washington” mind-sets and résumés of his opponents.
In fact, Mr. Buttigieg has far more in common with the standard Washington type and whiz kid political animal than any candidate in the race.
While much has been made of the former South Bend mayor’s elite background, polyglot skills and pioneer status as an openly gay candidate for president, it’s easy to overlook just how hard-core of a political obsessive he is.
One could easily envision Mr. Buttigieg as a peripatetic presidential campaign operative, or election commentator; or imagine him organizing “watch parties” in college where like-minded revelers at Harvard’s Institute of Politics could gather to enjoy that week’s episode of “West Wing.” Or see him live-blogging the Indiana primary for Slate in 2016, and angling to become the chair of the Democratic National Committee. That’s because he has actually done all of these things.
“I was just fascinated by it, just getting to be around these people,” Mr. Buttigieg said, describing the opportunity to experience “proximity to politics” as an 18-year-old college student and volunteer for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. “You know, some people geek out to actual rock stars,” he said. “For me, it was seeing people who I’d only watched on TV, getting to see them around.” He cited Donna Brazile, the ubiquitous cable pundit and former chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
Mr. Buttigieg presents himself as a 38-year-old embodiment of a generation that has little in common with the current septuagenarian front-runner (Bernie Sanders), former front-runner (Joe Biden) and incumbent (Donald Trump). But he also very much reflects a cohort of young politicos who were weaned on mass media and pop culture portrayals of the profession; they are just as likely to idolize Toby Ziegler from “The West Wing” or George Stephanopoulos as they are Ronald Reagan or John F. Kennedy.
In the fall of 2000, for instance, Mr. Buttigieg worked as a volunteer driver for special guests who were attending a general election debate between Mr. Gore and then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush at the Kennedy Library in Boston. “Do you remember the ‘Real People?’” Mr. Buttigieg asked. He explained: In preparing for his debates with Mr. Bush, Mr. Gore had enlisted the help of about a dozen ostensibly “regular Americans” who were deemed to be sufficiently representative of the national quilt, or at least the demographic threads the campaign wished to reach.
“You had these twelve people,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “Diverse. The schoolteacher and the nurse and the older woman who had some medical horror story, something like that.”
It was young Pete’s job to shepherd “a van full of the real people” around Boston on the night of the debate. “It’s not like I was anywhere near the beating heart of the campaign or something,” he said. Still, this was one harrowing ride for a teenager who’d never driven a van before, never driven in a city and never navigated around packs of Ralph Nader protesters.
He did however have his own police escort for when he was tasked with shuttling the real people to Boston’s North End, where they had a date to eat cannoli with Ted Kennedy.
As Mr. Buttigieg battled a cold on the morning of Tuesday’s Democratic debate in South Carolina, he sounded almost nostalgic for those days. It was as if he missed being able to partake of politics as a carefree tourist, from a position of even slight remove from the pressure-cooker he now occupied.
He took a sip of something warm, and began to describe another formative pit stop along his fast-track tour. In 2004, he moved to Arizona to work as a research assistant in the communications shop of John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. He sat all day in a cubicle, monitoring five TVs in an effort to track what people were saying about the campaign.
“That was when I learned what message discipline was,” Mr. Buttigieg said, as if he was checking off another job-training box. “You’d see all these Bush surrogates. You’d have Condi Rice on this Sunday show, Colin Powell over there and Karl Rove over there.” He kept the televisions on mute and used close captioning, the better to record what exact words they were using. “You’d learn about how they said what they wanted to say,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “And nothing else.”
One of the strange qualities of many politicians is that they are loath to be seen as too nakedly “political.” Candidates are told to avoid talking publicly about the insider-y facets of a campaign that are best left to the professionals behind the scenes or on TV. Mr. Buttigieg may have missed that Power Point presentation. In fact, he becomes especially animated in detailing how valuable it was to get to watch a bunch of talking-heads all day while working for Mr. Kerry.
To many observers, such a diet of drivel would be a recipe for despair — or at least jadedness. But Mr. Buttigieg said that while he felt some of that, becoming a mayor of his hometown — at 29 — served as its own antidote to cynicism. “It’s politics for sure, but it’s very real,” he said, of leading the city. As a mayor, he now had the opportunity to cavort with real-life “real people,” not just the curated photo-op variety assembled by the Gore campaign.
And yet, Mr. Buttigieg seemed eager to leave that behind in 2017 when he launched a bid to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a job saturated with exactly the kind of Washington inanity he had just been talking about. He said he ran to be chair of the D.N.C. because he felt that his skill set matched up with what he viewed to be his own strengths (being from “the industrial Midwest,” winning as a Democrat in a Red State, appealing to younger voters). The more skeptical reading of this places Mr. Buttigieg’s bid in the context of a precocious striver who was desperate to raise his national profile by climbing whatever ladder happened to be available to him.
Either way, Mr. Buttigieg conspicuously gritted his teeth when it was mentioned to him that Tom Perez — the eventual chair of the D.N.C — seems to currently occupy one of the more miserable jobs in American politics. “It crossed my mind,” Mr. Buttigieg said at the prospect of being one of the last Democrats standing in a presidential field rather than dealing with caucus fiascos in Iowa and fighting off calls for his resignation.
Still, as you watch Mr. Buttigieg move through his campaign, there are certain settings in which he becomes seemingly indistinguishable from the talking heads and hangers-on who populate this insider bubble.
On the morning of the New Hampshire primary, for instance, he was working his way backstage following an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “Hey, longtime follower, first time hand-shaker,” Mr. Buttigieg said, extending his hand to David Wasserman, a campaign and elections guru at “The Cook Political Report” and semifamous inhabitant of this political-media ecosystem.
A self-described “nerd for maps,” Mr. Wasserman represents just the kind of campaign super-junkie that only the most fanatical of politicos get aroused by.
Likewise, Mr. Wasserman became equally gob-smacked over Mr. Buttigieg’s ability in their brief encounter to forecast exactly what regions of New Hampshire he expected to perform well in (the Lakes Region, the western towns near the Vermont border).
On Tuesday morning in Charleston, S.C., before heading into a prep session for that night’s debate, Mr. Buttigieg was asked if his life as a political aficionado had prepared him for making strategic decisions on his own presidential campaign. “Not really at all,” he said, noting that it’s incumbent upon a candidate to relinquish as much of those considerations as possible, and focus on all the infinite stresses and demands of actually running. In so much as he follows the race as a spectator, he describes it almost as a kind of causal diversion.
“I thumb through Twitter, like everybody else does,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “I flip through cable when I’m ironing my shirts in the morning.”
Mr. Buttigieg has frequently been asked why he is running for president, a question every candidate gets but much more often in his case given his age and how unusual it would be for a small city mayor to jump straight to the White House.
His practiced answer is that after serving as a mayor for eight years, it occurred to him that the best way to help America’s cities would be to give them a better president. By that logic, it was pointed out to Mr. Buttigieg that any mayor in the country could run for president, right?
“Yes,” the candidate agreed. “But I’m not like the others.”