Why is Mayor Pete ahead of Harris and Warren? Hint: It’s not sexism.
There’s a narrative popping up lately that says Pete Buttigieg is only ahead of Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris because of misogyny, white privilege, and all the other “isms” of our day. And I have to say, it’s annoying me — mostly because the argument is so intellectually lazy.
Rather than honestly explore the reasons Mayor Pete might be outperforming the bicoastal senate duo, these commentators retreat to the leftist safe zone: when in doubt, blame “oppression.”
The argument is attractive because it scratches a liberal itch about societal injustice, provides a neat and oversimplified explanation to a complex issue, and offers reassurance to Harris and Warren fans that their candidates are really the best, America is just too bigoted to realize it.
Here’s the simple reality. Pete is ahead because he is offering something fundamentally different from all the other candidates. Apart from his compelling life story, he has a fresh take on how to solve the problems of our day for the long haul (“Win the Era”). Plus, he has an innate understanding of what people are looking for in this election cycle —and it’s not white papers. He’s been criticized for not having detailed policies on his website, while Warren has many detailed ones. Unfortunately for Ms. Warren, that’s not how most voters pick their candidate.
Hillary’s detailed policy proposals on every issue may have helped her win by millions of votes in California, but the rest of the country apparently didn’t care too much. Plus, one of Pete’s main arguments has been that individual policy proposals should actually be lower priority than fundamental reform to critical cogs in the system like the electoral college, the Supreme Court, and the senate filibuster. He is taking a long-term view and pushing these issues forward (along with action on climate change) that are normally left on the back burner. That is huge and shouldn’t be discounted.
As a native of conservative Indiana, Pete has a real understanding of how so many people across the country got to the point in 2016 that they were willing to “blow up the system” with a vote for Trump (or, to a lesser extent, Bernie Sanders). We have also seen the recent growth of serious non-partisan reform efforts like Represent.Us. Pete’s message counters the country’s widespread disillusionment with an uplifting vision for how we can build a stronger democracy.
Harris and particularly Warren, by contrast, have worked diligently to bolster their images as firebrand technocrats — an odd combination with a narrow appeal. How narrow? As of the end of last year, Warren had a 51% approval rating from her own state’s voters, while Harris only got a thumbs up from 43% of Californians. In comparison, Nikki Haley earned a 55% approval rating among Democrats in a poll last April. (Is sexism dragging her down?)
I am not the first to note that Warren’s detailed proposals (#SheHasAPlan) will almost certainly go nowhere in Congress. Harris, anticipating defeat ahead of time, has promised executive action if Congress doesn’t pass her gun control plan within 100 days of the inauguration. But that doesn’t solve the problem for the long term and leaves the fundamental imbalances of the system unaddressed and unresolved. Pete can’t magically solve these problems either, but he readily says as much and doesn’t claim to be offering overnight solutions.
You can also look at the “Why is Pete ahead” question from another angle: Why is Pete ahead of Jay Insleee, John Hickenlooper, or the several white male congressmen who are running? All of them have had government experience at a higher level than Pete. But again, voters don’t pick their candidate based on resumes alone. Voters want to be inspired, and they want to feel a connection with their candidate. Pete has been able to provide that where most of his competitors have come up short.
Bill Clinton, Governor of Arkansas, beat three US Senators and the Governor of California in the 1992 primary. And Obama was far less qualified than Hillary in 2008. In general elections, too, the “more qualified” candidate tends not to do as well: see Romney, Kerry, and Gore, who all struggled with perceptions of being unrelatable and boring.
John McCain similarly came up short despite his strong credentials. Does that mean he lost because of anti-white racism? Of course not. Yet that is the same kind of argument being leveled against Pete — that in a head-to-head contest, any candidate’s loss must be due to their race, gender, or other victim status. It’s lazy. And it gets to the heart of another big reason why Pete is ahead.
Pete is positioning himself as a healer and uniter in the culture wars. Identity politics and polarization over race, gender and the rest of it have reached epidemic proportions in this country, and most voters are tired of it. (See last year’s survey on the “exhausted majority” and how 80% of people, including minorities, think political correctness is a problem.) Trump has made this issue even more poisonous by winking at white nationalists throughout his presidency. The majority of the public has had enough, and they’re looking for someone who will turn down the volume and bring people together rather than divide them further.
Harris and Warren are running in the opposite direction, pledging to fight for their far-left base as fiercely as Trump has done for his far-right one. The series of articles complaining about their low polling numbers compared to Pete further proves the point — it reminds voters yet again of the obsession with a race and gender scorecard over considerations of simply, who is the best candidate who can beat Trump? (For an eye-opening look at the views of actual voters, see “The Democratic electorate on Twitter is not the actual Democratic electorate.”)
On top of all this, is no one concerned that Trump would pounce on Warren mercilessly as the nominee? “Pocahontas” would be at a huge disadvantage no matter how many brilliant policy proposals she puts on her website. In the eyes of many voters, she lied about her supposed American Indian heritage and leveraged that to get a faculty position at Harvard Law School thanks to affirmative action. Nothing she can say or do during the campaign is likely to change that perception. And yet again, it reminds voters of the damaging effects of the obsession with race.
Harris, of course, doesn’t have the same baggage, but she does share other negatives with her fellow senator: she’s a lawyer, she’s from a coastal metropolis, and she’s part of gridlocked, out-of-touch Washington. Enter Buttigieg, a veteran from the heartland who gets things done. I mean, come on, the guy is practically custom-built for a campaign commercial. And you’re saying sexism is the only reason he could be doing so well? Harris, not helping her case, has also thrown in her lot with Bernie by calling for the elimination of all private insurance companies and signaling openness to letting murderers vote from prison. Pete has been smarter about those issues, staying closer to where the majority of the country is.
So please, don’t be intellectually lazy anymore. Stop arguing that Pete is only ahead because of the particulars of his reproductive system. Admittedly, he is getting some bonus coverage as “the new guy.” But much more than that, he’s ahead because of his unique merits and what he would bring to the office of the presidency. He’s ahead because he understands how dramatically the political landscape has shifted since 2016. And he’s ahead because he has successfully positioned himself as an empathetic, forward-looking leader who just might be able to unite our fractured republic.
This is politics, and emotion rather than cold calculation usually wins the day. If Sens. Harris and Warren want to prevail, they will need to use that to their advantage rather than fight against it.