When we managed to book South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg as a special guest for a live performance of The Weeds at South by Southwest back in early March, he wasn’t exactly our dream choice. We’d gone after several higher-profile and more conventionally qualified candidates first, but they demurred or were noncommittal. Mayor Pete said yes.
Later that same day, he did a CNN town hall live from Austin. On March 4, he did an episode of Preet Bharara’s podcast. He did an episode of The Ezra Klein Show. He went on Medhi Hasan’s podcast Deconstructed. He’s been on David Remnick’s New Yorker podcast and most recently sat down with John Hardwood for his CNBC show. You may have seen him on the Late Show or more recently on Ellen.
If you’re into politics, then everywhere you look, you see Pete Buttigieg. There’s no doubt this strategy could backfire. If he were bombing in these appearances, that obviously wouldn’t help him, but it’s equally obvious that the high level of media exposure is central to his recent rise in the polls.
So obvious, in fact, that some fans of other candidates are annoyed and think they smell a conspiracy. Most hosts and producers don’t like to publicly discuss their booking struggles, but Buttigieg’s communications staff says that aggressively saying “yes” to media invitations and “not turning our noses up at non-traditional outlets” has been the centerpiece of their public relations strategy. Meanwhile, other journalists like Harwood confirm that they, too, have found it harder to book some of the better-known candidates.
As personalities and political thinkers, Buttigieg and Donald Trump are very different. But Buttigieg seems to have assimilated a key lesson of Trump’s 2016 campaign — in a crowded field, attention is the scarcest commodity, and it’s worth seeking wherever it can be found. Trump didn’t have traditional political experience or a traditional campaign operation, but he was willing and eager to be omnipresent on television in unscripted situations.
Some major candidates are laying low
A more cautious approach, of course, is not an inherently bad idea.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has maintained a consistent lead in the polls without so much as officially declaring his candidacy, much less doing a huge podcast blitz. His name-recognition is universal, and his favorable ratings among Democrats are very high. So he’s happy for now to run a frontrunner’s campaign that’s mostly focused on laying low and making a few appearances in front of friendly audiences.
Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) polls aren’t quite as good, but he, similarly, already enjoys very strong name recognition and, unlike Biden, has an enormous direct-to-consumer social media following.
It’s not clear that this same calculus has paid off as well for Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who two months ago were dramatically better-known than Buttigieg but have let him suck up a ton of media oxygen.
Harris did Pod Save America in May 2017 but has been pretty circumspect with her media appearances during the actual campaign. Her CNN town hall in late January was well-received and helped push her to the top of the pack but it hasn’t been followed up with aggressive media. She didn’t come to South By Southwest where Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Buttigieg, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee all did public appearances organized by the Texas Tribune. And of course you don’t see her on mid-list podcasts. Instead, she’s been doing campaign events in early primary states, courting California-based donors, and trying to lock-down endorsements.
O’Rourke is not exactly media-shy (he’s been on the cover of Vanity Fair, after all), but he likewise hasn’t booked himself on CNN, didn’t do a Texas Tribune conversation, and has been surprisingly invisible after the initial burst of attention to his announcement and impressive fundraising haul.
O’Rourke’s schedule is packed with in-person events — taking advantage of the fact that he has no day job to do appearances at a higher rate than anyone else. But the volume of attention paid to his 2018 Senate race, largely driven by the novelty of a viable statewide Democratic campaign in Texas, may have left him with a misleading impression of how much people would care about a guy standing on countertops. Buttigieg, meanwhile, is leveling-up his attention-getting skills by launching some signature feuds.
A good feud is fuel for attention
The fact that a Democratic Party politician has policy disagreements with Mike Pence regarding LGBT rights is not exactly a “Man Bites Dog” story.
But Buttigieg managed to leverage the fact that he is both gay and from Indiana into a multi-day feud with the vice president of the United States. The South Bend mayor criticized Pence, his state’s former governor, by name. Then he got Karen Pence to attack him, the VP himself to attack him, and then cable news doing pickup coverage of him telling Ellen DeGeneres that “I’m not critical of his faith, I’m critical of bad policies.”
Of course, literally every Democrat is critical of Pence’s policies, but somehow only Buttigieg is in the news for it.
The whole story arc even prompted a mildly critical Associated Press story, which noted that back when Pence was governor, Buttigieg seemed to have a perfectly friendly relationship with him — even ducking a couple of high-profile LGBT rights-related fights.
But for a candidate who continues to be held back by low name recognition, even a mildly critical story can be useful exposure. That’s especially true in this case because the AP story not only got his name out there but also served to highlight some of Buttigieg’s achievements as a small-city mayor working pragmatically across the aisle to help people.
There’s a cliché in American politics that opposition parties like to select a nominee who is in some sense the opposite of the hated incumbent. And Buttigieg — a young, gay, and extremely earnest Midwestern intellectual who’s also a combat veteran — certainly fits one version of that bill. But he’s also very much a beneficiary of the extent to which Trump’s election has lowered the bar for qualification for high office.
As Olivia Nuzzi, the author of a big new Buttigieg profile in New York magazine, pointed out over the weekend, he’s very much followed the model of obtaining coverage by making himself fun to cover.
Primary voting, of course, is still nine months away, and more likely than not, Buttigieg will find it impossible to maintain this level of momentum — particularly as other candidates step up. But whether or not his strategy ultimately delivers victory, Buttigieg is proving that courting earned media by relentlessly showing up can work for a range of political figures. That strategy isn’t inextricably linked to Trump’s brand of politics or his relationship with Fox News.