An extremely long presidential nomination process, when combined with a large number of aspirants, is fertile ground for a series of boomlets in which successive candidates attract a burst of positive attention and upward motion in public opinion polls. The first such boomlet of the 2020 Democratic contest seems to have arrived right on schedule, though its specific beneficiary is more of a surprise. In a field crowded with members of Congress, it's Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana (population: 102,000), who has managed to capture the most early momentum.
Several recent polls have found Buttigieg running in third place behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders (the only two Democratic candidates who have previously run for president), both nationally and in the early nomination states. Buttigieg also raised more than $7 million in individual donations during the first quarter of 2019, more than all but three of the other Democratic contenders (Biden, of course, was not yet a declared candidate).
It seems strange that a measurable segment of the party would already be throwing its support behind a midsize-city mayor rather than any of the many federal or statewide officeholders in the race. But Buttigieg projects a Kennedyesque persona, and a Kennedyesque persona is a valuable asset in a Democratic primary contest.
Kennedyesque politicians are youthful, personable, and confident. They compensate for their relative inexperience with well-hyped intellectual credentials: Ivy League diplomas, pet policy passions, authorship of "serious" books, public displays of erudition. Their bouts of earnestness are balanced by expressions of humor and self-awareness. They are masters of the rhetoric of idealistic generalities, leading audiences to find them charismatic or even inspirational, but they don't insist on doctrinal purity when it comes to the details. Indeed, the hope they offer—and "hope" is often what they explicitly promise—is that electing them will allow the nation to shed its messy ideological and partisan conflicts, progressing unencumbered into a new, brighter era of reason, civility, and mutual understanding. (One of the reasons why the Kennedy style doesn't have the same appeal within the Republican Party is that in the Republican version of utopia, political enemies are simply defeated, not converted.)
For decades, Democratic politicians with the capacity to do so have adapted themselves to the Kennedy model. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both found considerable success in Democratic presidential primaries by emulating Kennedy's approach, and even losing candidates like Gary Hart (1984) and John Edwards (2004) rode elements of the Kennedy persona to advance further in the nomination process than their other political virtues would likely have carried them. The fact that Clinton and Obama are the only post-JFK Democrats to be elected twice to the presidency reinforces the perception among electability-minded partisans that the Kennedy style can offer a strategic advantage that persists even after the primaries are over.
There are other recurrent archetypes in Democratic politics: the scrappy pugilist (Harry Truman, Howard Dean, Bernie Sanders); the just-the-facts technocrat (Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, Paul Tsongas); the political veteran who can work the levers of power (Lyndon Johnson, Walter Mondale, Hillary Clinton). But it's hard to imagine any of these other profiles being sufficient to launch a midwestern mayor into presidential contention against a raft of better-situated opponents. Buttigieg's electoral chances will depend on his ability to keep this precious persona intact as he weathers the added scrutiny that will inevitably follow his recent bump in the polls.
The interest that Buttigieg's campaign has already received is a testament to the warp speed at which today's political world operates. Except for Biden and Sanders, the other, more conventionally qualified Democratic candidates in the 2020 race are new faces on the national scene by traditional standards—yet much of the journalistic and social media realms are currently treating them like yesterday's news. It really wasn't all that long ago, in fact, that there was this other youngish candidate who suddenly emerged from obscurity to inspire Democratic activists across the country by seeming to personify a new, more hopeful kind of politics.
Had kind of a Kennedy look about him, too.
Whatever happened to that guy?