Can South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg work the angles to become a dark-horse presidential contender in 2020?

Pete Buttigieg works the crane at The South Bend Chocolate Company in South Bend.

Pete Buttigieg works the crane at The South Bend Chocolate Company in South Bend.Tony Valainis

To know Pete Buttigieg is to watch him play a skill crane game, the joystick-guided, mechanical claw driven pastime found in video arcades and travel stations across swaths of Middle America. When he was campaigning around Indiana for state treasurer in 2010, the machines became a kind of kryptonite for him. His campaign manager and driver, Jeff Harris, would be leaving a gas station in some sleepy town, already running late for their next rubber-chicken dinner, and he’d find Buttigieg’s eyes poring over a smudged glass case. Oh, God, there’s a claw machine, Harris would think. We’re going to be here for five minutes. Buttigieg kept quarters in his pocket for those moments. His limit was $2. He’d study the machine for several minutes, and in four tries or fewer, would pluck out a plush prize on a majority of occasions. When he got married last summer to his husband, Chasten, a junior-high teacher, Buttigieg featured one of the games at his reception, attended by the likes of celebrity political consultant David Axelrod and former Indiana Governor and South Bend Mayor Joe Kernan. “Mr. Buttigieg has a weakness for claw-vending machines,” noted the New York Times “Vows” writer who covered the affair, held in a South Bend coworking spot called the LangLab situated in a former furniture factory. “For him it’s about the precision and about trying to beat the system,” Harris told me. “He’s very good at it. He looks at the angles. He looks at things a different way.”

And so that’s how Buttigieg and I ended up in the “playcafé” area of The South Bend Chocolate Company, standing in front of a yellow game called Toy Soldier at 11:30 a.m. one snowy Friday in November. To truly understand the cerebral mayor, Harris told me, I needed to see him work the claw. This one happened to be only a few minutes’ walk from his 14th-floor office in the County-City Building. The only other people present on this day were a few stay-at-home moms and a dad passing the morning with their toddlers in tow.

Buttigieg wore a crisp white shirt, a blue skinny tie, a tailored charcoal overcoat, and the Skagen engagement watch his husband gave him. At 36, gray has only just begun to fleck his dark brown hair that frames a babyface. He is, friends say, an old soul. He studied the machine for a few minutes, appraising which stuffed trinkets were “above the plane,” an imaginary latitudinal line through the machine. If an item lay above it, it made a better target than one that lay below it.

“There are a few things to consider,” Buttigieg told me, addressing the machine. “First of all, it matters how it’s stacked. This is pretty favorable, because there’s more than one way to win. You always want to go for the obvious way to win, which is to pick it up and drop it off. Equal, and arguably more, potential lies in when you can tip it in.” He pointed to a pink-and-purple monkey, which teetered on the edge of the bin. “Look at this guy. All you gotta do is get a piece of it—or drag something along, and tip it in. You can even get a twofer. Anytime something is above the plane, you got potential. That Tigger there? Probably out of reach, because it’s farther than the claws can go, but if you can get a piece of it, you can bring it over.”

As he studied the machine, Buttigieg was interrupted again by one of his constituents. “Mayor Pete, how are you doing, sir?” Marc Hyde, a 27-year-old dad and pastor in South Bend, asked him. Hyde told him he grew up in South Bend and never wanted to spend time downtown. That is, until Buttigieg transformed the Rust Belt town dubbed one of “America’s Dying Cities” by Newsweek in 2011, less than two weeks before a 29-year-old Buttigieg declared his candidacy to become mayor of his hometown, the youngest mayor of an American city of at least 100,000 at that time. “Now we find ourselves downtown all the time,” Hyde told him. “Thanks for all you’ve done.”

Just as Buttigieg finished studying the game’s field, a blonde girl who looked to be maybe 4 or 5 years old sidled up to Buttigieg. “You’re too big to do that,” she told him. “Oh, hi,” he responded, smiling. By this point, a few of the moms had noticed the mayor in the playcafé. “This is not usually how I spend my working hours,” he told one, a grin spreading across his face. The lady smiled politely, pretending not to be confused by the presence of two 30-something men in an arcade–slash–children’s play area.

Buttigieg refocused on the game. One can also control the orientation of the three fingers of the claw, he explained, by swirling the joystick around before an attempt, thereby making it possible to get a more fulsome grip on an object. “The key question is, do you have any control of it?” he said. “Or is it just the game?”

Sort of like a presidential campaign, something Buttigieg was thinking a lot about over the few days I spent with him last fall.

“When I first ran, there was a lot of chatter about whether I’d even finish my first term,” Buttigieg says.

Pete Buttigieg is running. Today, it’s along the St. Joseph River on a crisp and gray October morning in South Bend, as the mayor tried to clear his mind in the middle of a packed day. A meeting with the NAACP. A meeting with staff to discuss the city’s $368 million budget, which is scheduled to go in front of the City Council in a few days. And some political time. He’s trying to get back into shape. He’s working his way up from 5 miles a day to 9. That’s what he ran when he was deployed with the Navy as a counterterrorism intelligence officer in Afghanistan, where he set his half-marathon personal record of 1:42 back in Bagram, a pace of about 7:46 per mile. “It’s actually a hauntingly beautiful place, and the daylight started to come up over the mountains and it was March or April so it was still snow-capped peaks,” Buttigieg says. “The best race of my life.”

In the very near future, Buttigieg might be running less literally, on the campaign trail in Iowa or New Hampshire. Right? I asked him, as his slim 5-foot-9 frame was bounding over still-green grass yet to turn brown ahead of another unforgiving Northern Indiana winter.

“I don’t know,” Buttigieg answered. It’s a question he’s been getting a lot lately. These are heady times for the South Bend mayor and possible 2020 Democratic presidential contender. You’ll be forgiven if the juxtaposition of those two makes you scoff. Buttigieg has become a dark horse for the Democratic nomination, one who trades calls with former Vice President Joe Biden, lands plaudits as the future of the Democratic Party from former President Barack Obama, emails with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, keeps counsel with former Obama strategist Axelrod, and has Lis Smith, the New York City–based, celebrity Democrat-communications guru, on a five-figure retainer.

Axelrod is the one who, upon seeing the mayor’s campaign for Democratic National Committee chair in 2017, thought Smith could help bring his message to the masses. “He speaks the language of the heartland,” Axelrod says. “He is a very gifted guy in a very understated way.” At the same time, Martin O’Malley, the 2016 presidential contender and former mayor of Baltimore, was also playing matchmaker between the mayor and the consultant. Smith had worked on O’Malley’s ultimately unsuccessful presidential bid. “He was just a total breath of fresh air and struck me as exactly what we needed in our party after the worst election cycle of my lifetime,” Smith says. “He had a different type of profile—young Midwestern mayor, a unique bio, and a really compelling message that should’ve been more front-and-center in 2016. I remember reading up on him and thinking, Where the heck has this guy been all my life?

In Buttigieg, Smith and others see an ideas candidate who is everything Donald Trump isn’t. Quiet. Substantive. Thoughtful. He’s a progressive Democrat who doesn’t shy away from talking about issues like universal basic income. “People want to hear some new ideas,” Buttigieg says. “If not new ideas, at least commit to certain things.”

Over coffee in November, Mike Schmuhl, his first campaign manager, and the guy tasked with managing his federal PAC, outlined a platform that would include planks of democracy, security, and freedom, including voting by mail, and statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico. Schmuhl, an operative who splits his time between Brooklyn and South Bend, and was actually a year behind the mayor at Saint Joseph High School, moved back to Indiana in November, a sign that he could be central to a 2020 Buttigieg run, which would be headquartered here. A Buttigieg campaign would also seek to do more than just be a referendum on Trump by outlining benefits to would-be Democratic voters. That universal basic income, for example. It would be a positive campaign that wouldn’t be framed by Trump, who Buttigieg wrote in a December 2016 Medium essay was a “thin-skinned authoritarian who is not liberal, nor conservative, nor moderate.” The suffocating Trump news cycle, he says, “is like a computer virus. It ties up all the processing power of the national psyche and the press and people like me.”

Jim Banks, the 3rd District Republican Congressman from Columbia City who deployed in the Navy Reserves to Afghanistan seven months after Buttigieg did, told me his party dodged a bullet when Buttigieg lost his 2017 bid to become chair of the Democratic National Committee (Buttigieg and Banks are friends and exchanged emails leading up to Banks’s deployment). Banks says Buttigieg’s brilliance comes in the way he frames progressive policy goals in a language that doesn’t scare off red-state voters. “We couldn’t be anymore different when it comes to politics, but I have a lot of admiration for him, and believe that the Democratic party would be wise to look to leaders like him and believe that he has a lot to offer,” Banks says. “I’ve seen him portray himself as mayor in more of a moderate approach, but now that he’s talking about national politics, it’s more ideological, further to the left.”

In February, Buttigieg will release his first book, Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future. It’s the kind of tome that typically presages a presidential campaign—a decision that aides expect he’ll make this month.

Buttigieg eschewed the common practice of farming the book out to a ghostwriter and sweated the process. “I usually write in the style of whatever I’ve been reading lately,” he told me in October over bacon and eggs at L Street Kitchen, a diner steps away from the County-City Building. “When I was reading Joyce, I feel like I was writing like Joyce, or trying to. When I was reading Hemingway, I’d write these short, masculine sentences. You think like, What do I read now? The answer, for the most part, is email. Which is terrible for your prose, right?”

Buttigieg in Navy fatigues with afghan girl on shoulders

Buttigieg grew up in South Bend, joined the Naval Reserves, and served in Afghanistan as a counterterrorism intelligence officer. During his deployment, he ran the affairs of South Bend via email on his laptop.Pete Buttigieg

Buttigieg scoured his schedule for blocks of time to write portions of the book, beginning nearly four years ago with an essay about his time in Afghanistan—a way, he says, “to process my deployment.” He struggled with the writing. His staff would find 30 minutes here, 45 minutes there. “It turns out, you need 90 minutes just to warm up,” Buttigieg realized. He disappeared for large stretches of time to an attic in his Colonial Revival, a fixer-upper with a monthly mortgage payment of $450 and located on the same block as his parents. As he wrote, he mined his Midwestern upbringing, his tour in Afghanistan, coming out as the first openly gay elected executive in Indiana, and leading the Rust Belt city back from the brink.

The work paid off. In Shortest Way Home, Buttigieg tells his own story and that of South Bend’s in a way that is reminiscent of Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father. It’s a meditation on what it means to be Midwestern as much as it is a story of how to revive a down-on-its-luck city in the industrial heartland—the kind of story any Democrat who thinks it’s important to win Trump voters in red states such as Indiana should study. The first time Axelrod heard Buttigieg speak, he “was blown away by him. He gave this seamless and elegant talk. He told his own story, and South Bend’s, but he didn’t make it all about himself. This is a guy I should watch.

Home is more literary nonfiction than a traditional campaign book. It’s short on policy prescriptions, and long on keen social observation. His thesis: “Resentment and nostalgia are not the only formula for the industrial Midwest,” he told me, “or for struggling communities in general.” To show that Democrats can succeed in states like Indiana, he points to the records of progressive figures such as Terre Haute’s Eugene V. Debs, the labor leader who showed that “a century ago, the left was arguably being led from the Midwest. Treating the middle of the country like unshakably Republican territory would serve us poorly in the long run.”

Over the course of the last four years it took him to write Home, Buttigieg has also authored another narrative: darkhorse presidential candidate.

Buttigieg as child, playing a toy guitar. Buttigieg's family came to South Bend in 1980.

Buttigieg’s family came to South Bend in 1980.Pete Buttigieg

Buttigieg was born to Notre Dame academics, a Maltese immigrant father who married the daughter of an Army officer who had bounced from Scott County, Indiana, to El Paso. They came to South Bend in 1980, and gave birth to Peter two years later. Buttigieg was chubby. Awkward. Liked Star Trek. “Still like Star Trek,” he told me. His best friend had a developmental disability, which he says made him reflect a lot on the nature of “free will and self-destination.”

In 2000, when he was 18 and the president of his senior class at Saint Joseph High School in South Bend, an essay won him $3,000 and an all-expenses-paid trip to Boston that May for the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Essay Contest. Attending a private Catholic school, Buttigieg was surrounded by Kennedy’s legend, which was on par with that of Lincoln’s.

Buttigieg had spent days working on an essay about Carolyn McCarthy, the crusading gun-control advocate. But at the last minute, Buttigieg discovered that McCarthy had been the topic of an essay selected as the competition’s winner the previous year. He scrapped the idea.

Instead, Buttigieg chose Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, 16 years before his presidential run. A nine-member committee, including luminaries such as the Pulitzer prize–winning historian David McCullough and the late Senator Ted Kennedy, plucked Buttigieg’s essay about Sanders from a pile of 600 entries as the winner. “Cynical candidates have developed an ability to outgrow their convictions in order to win power,” Buttigieg wrote at the time. “Cynical citizens have given up on the election process, going to the polls at one of the lowest rates in the democratic world.” Today, Buttigieg—it’s pronounced boot-a-judge, he’s in the custom of explaining to new acquaintances on the campaign trail—keeps a photo of himself with Caroline Kennedy, whom he met that day, in his office.

He went to Harvard University about the time Zuckerberg started Facebook, and was one the first 200 people on the service. He remembers clicking on the profiles of male classmates out of curiosity, not quite ready to come to terms with his sexuality. He hung around the school’s Institute of Politics, where he attended events with politicos like Rick Davis, John McCain’s 2000 campaign manager, steeped himself in the study of government, and learned Arabic.

After graduating in 2004, he did research for the Kerry-Edwards campaign and worked for former Defense Secretary William Cohen as a conference planner. In the summer of 2005, he sharpened his language skills in a Tunis classroom, where he took a course in Arabic (Buttigieg would likely be the first American president to be conversant in the language, though he admits it has become rusty). Later, he won a Rhodes Scholarship that took him to Oxford for two years, when he studied analytic philosophy, politics, and economics, taking an honors degree in 2007. All of which he put to use back in Chicago in 2007, where he worked for three years at McKinsey & Co., the storied management consultancy, where his salary was more than double his mayoral salary of $102,000. His area of specialty was relatively mundane juxtaposed with his vaunted credentials: grocery store pricing.

Though he worked in the firm’s wood-paneled and abstract painting–lined Chicago office, he was close enough to Indiana to help on the gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Jill Long Thompson, who faced Republican Mitch Daniels in 2008. He focused on research and debate prep, and his work product caught the eye of Harris, the longtime Indiana Democrat operative from South Bend. That year, he also went to Iowa to knock on doors for Obama. In a rural setting, Buttigieg saw teenagers getting ready to deploy. He had a grandfather who was a pilot in the Navy. One of his prize possessions is his flight log. And it hit him. He needed to enlist, which he did in 2009. “I can count on one hand the number of people I knew at Harvard at the time who served,” Buttigieg says. “So you took that plus the fact that there’s a family tradition, plus the fact that when I was at Oxford I got to know people at the Naval Academy and just admired the hell out of those guys. I ran out of excuses not to serve. My last excuse not to sign up was that I disagreed with the administration at the time, but then the administration changed. Not that you serve based on who’s in power, but you make a decision about whether to enter the military. Then I wound up serving under President Obama and President Trump.”

Over lunch at a diner in 2010, Buttigieg asked Harris about running against Richard Mourdock for state treasurer. In deep-red Indiana, it was the kind of bid that no one expected Buttigieg to win, but would build name identification and earn him chits with the Indiana Democratic Party. Harris signed on as his campaign manager.

Buttigieg’s campaign rollout became the stuff of Indiana political lore. Each summer, Indiana Democrats hold a confab at French Lick Resort, where candidates get drunk and golf with party insiders. Ahead of the event, Harris had some 50 leftover yard signs from various friends’ campaigns. He and some volunteers spray-painted them white. On them, they wrote “Meet Pete.” They planted them for miles in every direction around the resort. The move created buzz. As Democratic grandees arrived that Friday for the weekend, they all had one question: Who the hell is Pete?

Despite his worldly education, Buttigieg was still the awkward kid from South Bend. At first, he struggled with working a room. He and Harris would arrive at a union hall in some part of the state, and Buttigieg would hang by the wall. “Come on, Pete,” Harris would tell him, “let’s go.” But, Harris says, “after two or three weeks on the trail, he got that down cold.” What he lacked in glad-handing ability, he made up for with sheer elbow grease. Buttigieg and Harris set up shop in the basement of the St. Joseph Valley Building Trades hall in South Bend, with Buttigieg calling donors throughout the week, on Saturdays and Sundays, as well. “He did it without question,” Harris says. “He took a leave of absence from McKinsey. That struck me.”

Later that fall, Buttigieg, of course, got trounced, earning only 37.5 percent of the vote. But the run cemented him as future Democratic star.

In politics, biography and narrative are destiny, and Buttigieg has one of the best—and most interesting—at the moment.

Indiana Democrats got their introduction to Buttigieg during an annual summer retreat in French Lick. Ahead of the event, his backers lined the highway with dozens of signs.

When you run for office at 29, your face is your message. That was the case for Buttigieg when he was first elected in 2011. It was days after Newsweek ran the “Dying Cities” story, which caused a minor stir in the city. “More than 50 years ago, South Bend, Ind., was a hub of manufacturing, largely due to the presence of the Studebaker car company,” the piece read. “But by the early 1960s, the company had closed up shop in South Bend for good, plunging this area into a long and steep downturn that continues today, though it’s a bit more muted than in previous decades. What is particularly troubling for this small city is that the number of young people declined by 2.5 percent during the previous decade, casting further doubt on whether this city will ever be able to recover.”

The older the voter, the more likely they were to say that Buttigieg being 29 was positive, according to the only poll he put in the field. He won in a tight Democratic primary, besting a lineup of challengers that included Ryan Dvorak, a state lawmaker who had represented that district since 2002. (Dvorak, for his part, spent much of the campaign holed up in a hotel in Illinois, in the middle of a Statehouse Democrat walkout over a raft of anti-union bills.)

The drape-measuring talk came early. A Harvard- and Oxford-educated military member probably had his eyes on higher office, or so the conventional thinking went. “When I first ran, there was a lot of chatter about whether I’d even finish my first term,” Buttigieg says.

He eventually completed the term, but was gone for seven months of it in 2014 because of his military obligations. In Afghanistan, Buttigieg was a liaison officer, which meant he did a lot of intelligence work at the base in Bagram. Often, he had to drive his commander around Kabul, risking running over an IED. He did more than 100 trips outside the wire. On the base, he managed the city over email.

Back in South Bend, now 36, with deep-set eyes and a mop of brown hair that he wears parted on the side, Buttigieg bears a resemblance to Brad Stevens, the former Butler and current Boston Celtics basketball coach. But with his interest in wonky local government issues like the virtues of a “smart” sewer system, Buttigieg cuts a figure similar to Ben Wyatt, the state auditor in Parks and Recreation played by Adam Scott, though a far more successful version. In the series, Wyatt had become the mayor of his hometown of Partridge, Minnesota, at 18. But then he had bankrupted the city by creating a winter sports complex called Ice Town, and gotten banned from Partridge. “He’s in on the joke just enough,” Buttigieg says of the character. I asked his husband, Chasten, to confirm this comparison. “I’m offended he doesn’t immediately associate me with Leslie,” he says. “He is the Ben to my Leslie. He is also like Ron.”

Like the fictional Wyatt, Buttigieg is a fan of HBO’s Game of Thrones. He also enjoys listening to Radiohead and has a self-aware sense of humor. When I asked him for some of his other favorite shows, he mentions Occupied, a Norwegian political thriller from Netflix. “Nothing says ‘man of the people’ like a Norwegian political thriller,” Buttigieg told me, as we drove around town one day last fall in his silver 2015 Chevy Cruze. A Jack Link’s beef jerky wrapper hid in a crevice between the seat and the passenger door. An empty bottle of Lemon-Lime Gatorade sat in the middle console.

In the early days of his first term, he was still kind of stiff and awkward. Concerned about his age, he was always in a suit and tie. Soon, he seemed to become more at ease, losing his jacket. When Buttigieg came into office, he proposed something quite more quotidian than Ice Town: tearing down 1,000 dilapidated houses in 1,000 days. Using $10.5 million from a HUD grant, Buttigieg went to work. Jack Colwell, a longtime columnist for the South Bend Tribune, thought the premise was crazy. But the houses—vacant for at least 90 days—depressed property values and increased the likelihood of crime. Some had become crack houses. It was a psychological victory for the city. His governing philosophy is “rooted in kind of a mixture of hope and just accountability,” says Colwell. “Just getting shit done.”

“It was this childlike goal,” Buttigieg says of his 1,000-houses campaign. “Super simplistic goal that was publicized. And then our progress was also publicized. So you could see when we were behind. And it created this urgency. This propulsion. It was an expenditure of political capital because it was a risk that motivated everybody, especially me, to make sure that it got done.”

In June 2015, an election year and not long after Governor Mike Pence signed his Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Buttigieg decided to come out as gay. He told his parents and friends first. And then he wrote an editorial for the South Bend Tribune. He won reelection with more than 80 percent of the vote.

As we drove past the old Studebaker factory that’s being turned into a tech startup center, Buttigieg decided to dart to a public-housing complex on the city’s northeast side. He told me he wanted to check on something. He parked, and we headed toward a unit with a rain gutter that had fallen askew and lay across the stoop. Buttigieg knocked on the door. But when the middle-aged resident came to the door, he knew Buttigieg’s face. “You’re welcome anytime,” the man said, when Buttigieg apologized for dropping in unannounced. Buttigieg wanted to know if anyone from the city’s housing authority had been by to fix the gutter, which had been there for a year. No one had. Buttigieg promised to get it taken care of, and gave the homeowner his phone number.

In South Bend, Buttigieg sees his job as being able to make the trains run on time, he told me. He means that literally. One of his big projects he wants to finish as mayor is getting the South Shore Train that runs from downtown Chicago to the west side of the South Bend Airport moved to downtown. “Trains are designed to go from downtown to downtown,” Buttigieg says. The train ride is currently an hour and 55 minutes. Buttigieg wants to trim that down to 90 minutes, which he thinks will improve the city’s livability and economy: It could net the city up to $415 million in economic activity over a decade. He just needs to find $100 million to fund it. A federal grant he’s after might do the trick. “With the time change, that means you could leave here at 8 a.m. and be in Chicago for a 9 a.m. meeting.”

Some Indiana Democrats are puzzled about the national attention Buttigieg has won. He’s a good cheerleader for the city, but is there really any “there” there? “He’s done all the right things, but whether it’s really innovative is another question,” one state official tells me. “I think you’ll find equally or more innovative stuff in Fort Wayne or Indianapolis. That’s not to denigrate his approach or what he’s accomplished here.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been unsuccessful in getting him to run for Congress. “It’s true and sort of obvious I’m getting involved in more national and federal politics,” he says. “It’s not at all true that mayors in general, and certainly somebody like me, see that [higher office] is necessarily better. Any time I was encouraged to run for Congress, I looked at it, and felt that it was not going to be as compelling as being mayor.”

That could all change this month.

Buttigieg in mayor's office. He’s the state’s first openly gay elected official and one of the country’s youngest mayors, but Buttigieg has made a name for himself by focusing on revitalizing South Bend and modernizing many of the city’s services. Some political insiders believe he has the skill and profile to be the next president.

He’s the state’s first openly gay elected official and one of the country’s youngest mayors, but Buttigieg has made a name for himself by focusing on revitalizing South Bend and modernizing many of the city’s services. Some political insiders believe he has the skill and profile to be the next president.Tony Valainis

Before Buttigieg gave me a running tour of South Bend, we darted over to his political headquarters in the Tower Building around the corner and a three-minute walk from his mayoral office. The place has been busy these days. Inside a musty office, Matt McKenna, a 22-year-old staffer and Notre Dame alum, leads a team of political volunteers who are prepping bios for Buttigieg’s Hitting Home Political Action Committee’s endorsements. Buttigieg campaigned in more than a dozen states ahead of the midterm elections, and on this day, the requests for his presence on the trail are coming in by the hour. In October, he endorsed 21 candidates running for Congress and doled out as many campaign donations, while traveling to early presidential primary states such as Iowa and South Carolina. He has nearly $70,000 in his war chest, an amount more in line with a mayoral bid than a presidential one. “Money is an issue,” Axelrod says. Even his closest advisors admit fundraising is a weakness, especially if he faces a primary opponent like Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who raised $38 million in one quarter.

Buttigieg’s position did improve somewhat when a fellow Democrat vet, Jason Kander, of Missouri, announced he was stepping back from a mayoral campaign in Kansas City to deal with lingering post-traumatic stress disorder from his own deployment. (As young vets, Kander and Buttigieg cut similar national profiles.) Deborah Simon and Cindy Simon Skjodt, the shopping-center scions who are playing an outsized Democratic fundraising role in the Trump era, back Buttigieg. Chris Hughes, one of the Facebook founders, has also contributed to the mayor’s campaigns in the past.

Indiana Republicans have attacked Buttigieg for his time away from the state, calling him “Part-Time Peter,” a Trumpian nickname that might indicate the South Bend mayor is a real threat. “I don’t think too many people care about him spending time away,” Colwell, the South Bend columnist, told me. “A lot of people here are kind of proud of it.”

The mayor has already outlined the workings of a message left over from his bid for DNC chair: “protecting freedom, fairness, families, and the future.” Buttigieg’s approach to that race would mirror his approach to the presidency. (In the Clinton–Bernie Sanders proxy war that was the DNC race, Buttigieg ran up the middle in a lane of his own—and lost.) During the DNC race, Buttigieg called Trump “a draft-dodging chicken hawk.” Now, however, he says he regrets the statement because it was out of his character.

He believes serving as a mayor will be an asset, not a drawback. “I think it’s first of all just fascinating that mayors are being talked about in a way that mayors didn’t used to be talked about, and I think the other mayors who have been mentioned are all compelling and really interesting and deserve to be mentioned,” Buttigieg says. In 2019, he could be one of at least three possible Democratic mayors to run for president, alongside New Orleans’s former head, Mitch Landrieu, and Los Angeles’s Eric Garcetti. “The interesting thing is it’s gonna be a while before we even know what lanes people will resolve themselves into. It may not be ideological. I’m surprised there aren’t more people in the mix from this part of the country, kind of the heartland.”

After the swing by his campaign office, we meet his husband at The South Bend Chocolate Company to attend the city’s First Friday Festival. It’s an autumn scene, and children are carving pumpkins. Buttigieg and Chasten look for a good photo op and brainstorm the caption for a tweet.

“Oh my Gourd, look at all the pumpkins,” Chasten offers.

“You can’t say that,” Buttigieg says.

The two pose with a kid in a Buzz Lightyear costume. It’s not hard to imagine the two on the campaign trail in Iowa, playing out the same scene in a small town there. In fact, Buttigieg’s chief advisor, Schmuhl, sees Iowa as a lot like Indiana, a state full of small towns and fertile ground for his candidate to cultivate.

The Buttigiegs hope to start a family soon. From the First Friday celebration, we head to dinner at Fiddler’s Hearth, the cozy Irish pub where they had their first date. “We’re both really invested in our careers,” Chasten says over pints of Guinness, fish and chips, and bangers and mash. “We make decisions together.” Often, at political events, namely in a recent visit to Iowa, wellwishers mistake Chasten for Buttigieg’s staffer.

Losing a presidential campaign is something that even fellow Indiana Democrats see as a possibility for Buttigieg. “Pete checks a lot of different boxes for people,” one told me, requesting anonymity to discuss Buttigieg’s chances frankly. “But the presidency? It seems a little crazy. I’d love to see him be part of our regional effort. People like him need to win [lower federal offices] first.”

Buttigieg is well aware a 2020 campaign would be a long-shot effort, and Axelrod says “this is a particularly wide open race.” In November, a Morning Consult/Politico poll of 20 Democratic presidential candidates didn’t even include Buttigieg’s name, and featured four candidates taking 0 percent. Among them were national brand names like Obama Attorney General Eric Holder and Michael Avenatti, the provocateur and attorney who represented the adult film star Stormy Daniels in her legal battle with Trump.

“You could argue,” Buttigieg told me, a wry smile spreading over his face, “that I’m a specialist in winning by losing.”

“Identity politics have never computed for me,” says Buttigieg.

Back at the South Bend Chocolate Company, Buttigieg fed another crisp dollar bill into the skill crane machine. This time, he went after a brown bear. A nearby frog, by virtue of its center of gravity, seemed riskier.

A second try, nothing. “You’ll learn by a failed attempt,” Buttigieg explained. Each time he’d navigate the claw closer to the animal, the pace of the carnival-like electronic music soundtrack of the game got faster.

“You notice how the music accelerates in order to try and prompt you to move more quickly than you strategically should,” Buttigieg said. “It creates a false sense of urgency.”

When we met, it was three days after the midterm election. Buttigieg had watched returns in a makeshift conference at the Aloft, a 187-room hotel that just opened here in September of 2017 in the place of a dilapidated former Chase Tower. Looking at how Indiana Democrats fared that night—Senator Joe Donnelly lost the only statewide office Democrats held, and Mel Hall lost Buttigieg’s 2nd District to Rep. Jackie Walorski—Buttigieg seemed resigned to a future outside of higher office in Indiana. “It complicates any path for me in Indiana more than what was already the case,” he said.

He fished another 50 cents out of his pocket.

A third try. No dice.

He went after the brown animal once again. The claw contracted without latching onto anything. He grimaced. “Nope,” he said. “Live to play another day.”

Even if he runs in 2020 and loses the Democratic primary, many see him landing a plum cabinet position. You don’t have to try too hard to imagine the former management consultant running a federal agency like the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development—or even the vice presidency. Indiana, after all, has produced more of those—six—than any other state except New York, which claims 11. “Any president would benefit from his gifts,” says Axelrod. Buttigieg is seven years younger than John F. Kennedy was when he became president. If he runs and wins, he’d be 39 when he was inaugurated. He has an entire political lifetime to win the plush toy of the presidency. There’s time. But you can tell he hears the electronic carnival music of running for national office getting faster in his head.

When the New York Times op-ed writer Frank Bruni visited South Bend in the spring of 2016, he went back with a column about Buttigieg with the headline: “The First Gay President?” In interviews, Buttigieg plays down his sexual orientation. When he came out in 2015, he crafted the headline “Why Coming Out Matters, and Why It Shouldn’t Have To.” An editor at the paper trimmed it to “Why Coming Out Matters.” During his 2017 DNC bid, he often used a line that underscored his disconnect from that brand of politicking. “Thanksgiving morning, by the way, I spent in a deer blind with my boyfriend’s father, so how’s that for a 2017 experience?” he would say. He’s the rare candidate who both reads Graham Greene novels and can clean M4 and M9 guns. “A lot of times during the DNC [chair] race,” Buttigieg told Rolling Stone, “I would joke that as the left-handed, red-state, Oxford-educated, Maltese-American military veteran in the race—well, if I tried to understand my place in the world strictly through identity, it would be pretty confusing for me, not to mention for others. And pretty hard for others to identify with too.”

All of which makes you wonder: Is he a candidate who signals the beginning of the end of identity politics, in the same way that Obama seemed to signal the arrival of post-racial politics? “Identity politics have never really computed for me,” says Buttigieg.

Asked if he thinks he would struggle with evangelical voters in states such as Iowa, he cites deep Episcopal faith in a way that values voters could understand. (He attends Episcopal Cathedral of St. James in South Bend.) “There is just a way to bring it back to the values that are actually discussed the most in scripture,” Buttigieg told me back in October at Fiddler’s. “I mean, think about foot-washing. Feet are gross, and one of the enduring images of Christianity is when the divine comes to Earth, he occupies himself with service in the most humbling way, of those who are most humble. And right now, in our leadership, we have the opposite. We have this idea that those in political service need to make sure that their powerful allies succeed, and it’s just not … it’s not the Christianity that I get in church or in scripture.”

But we are far from the presidential campaign trail now, back in South Bend, on the way to the County-City Building from The South Bend Chocolate Company, heading toward a humbling ritual Buttigieg still practices every day: going through the building’s metal detector, an act he doesn’t have to do but still does because he says it sets a good example for his staff. He’s mayor, yes. But he’s not above his staff.

As he walked toward the entrance in the bracing cold, Buttigieg had a few final thoughts about claw games and what they can teach us about launching presidential campaigns. “Clearly, you’re operating in a space where it’s easy to lose,” he told me. “It’s hard to win. It’s possible that you couldn’t win no matter what. But if you do win, it’s partly a function of your skill. There’s more chance associated with the scenario where it’s impossible than the scenario where it’s possible. It doesn’t matter how good you are. And the only way to find out if you can win is to try.

 

Adam Wren writes about business, politics, and crime for Indianapolis Monthly—often in the same story.

Follow him on Twitter @adamwren or visit his website at adamwren.me.