Early Democratic presidential campaigner Pete Buttigieg rallied primary voters last Friday night, speaking before hundreds at his latest New Hampshire stop, the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, N.H.
The South Bend, Ind. mayor has not yet officially entered the race for the Democratic nomination, but that mattered little to the supporters and attendees who came to see the likely candidate.
Voters saw an opportunity to place policy to a persona. Buttigieg’s sudden explosion in the national media and proven fundraising success places the atypical candidate in the conversation, despite his relative anonymity only a few months ago.
Wendy Thomas, a state representative for New Hampshire’s District 21, said she wanted to vet the candidate who “popped up out of nowhere.”
“He’s charismatic,” Thomas, who lives in Merrimack, said of Buttigieg. “Even though he could be a great person and a great candidate, I want to be sure that we’re not getting carried away by charisma.”
Buttigieg’s unconventional background in Indiana politics, military service and Christian service sets him to run as the Democratic field’s values-oriented outsider — a role he was eager to embrace Friday night.
“We as Democrats, being as we are policy people, sometimes forget to talk about the values that motivate our policies,” Buttigieg said at the rally. “So, you’re going to hear a lot from me about policy, but first you’re going to hear a lot from me about values.”
In a 20-minute stump speech, Buttigieg fleshed out his central talking points – “freedom, democracy and security” – with personal anecdotes and political rhetoric that sought to reclaim the terms from conservatives, who have run, and won, on those themes in the past.
He said that conservative politicians were sincere in their desire for “freedom,” but failed to see anything beyond “freedom from” the government and its myriad laws, taxes and regulations.
“Sometimes, your neighbor can make you feel unfree,” Buttigieg said. “Your cable company can make you feel unfree. Your county clerk can make you unfree if they’re telling you who to marry.”
Buttigieg pressed that those terms were progressive to the core.
“Don’t anybody tell you that freedom belongs to the other side of the aisle,” he said.
Buttigieg’s other talking points refocused Democratic agendas on policy buzzwords favorited by the right, like security, which the military veteran said that progressive candidates had avoided talking about.
Buttigieg pointed to cyber threats, climate change and violent white nationalism as some of the largest threats to America’s security, alongside the traditional threats that he said he saw while serving in uniform.
The stump landed most fervently when Buttigieg turned towards “democracy,” which he described as the glue keeping his other two tenants upright. He called for combating gerrymandering and campaign finance reform, and his anti-establishment view to abolish the electoral college, which gained some of the loudest applause of the night.
Attendees were split on what they wanted from Buttigieg.
Tom Murphy, a New Hampshire resident who described himself as a democratic conservative, was hopeful that Buttigieg’s middle-America appeal could resonate on the national stage.
“I’m a fiscal conservative, I’m a social liberal. I have two gay daughters. I’m a progressive. That’s the Paul Tsongas formula,” Murphy said, referring to the former Massachusetts representative and unsuccessful presidential candidate known for centrist policies. “[Buttigieg] is the first candidate other than Amy Klobuchar who comes remotely close to fitting that bill.”
But Thomas, the New Hampshire state representative, said she wanted a fighter to lead the party into 2020.
“I want intelligence, I want depth and I also want them to be angry,” she said of a future Democratic nominee. “Some of these candidates are coming out and saying we have to work with the other side, we have to be friends with the other side, and we have to hold hands. No. You guys screwed it up. Step aside, we’re taking over.”
Buttigieg said he was bullish on his future in democratic politics, in part because of the emphatic response that he said he was seeing.
“I believe that message is resonating from coast to coast, because every time we arrange a little meet and greet we end up with a rally,” Buttigieg said at the rally.
Friday’s event was no exception. Buttigieg’s team made a last-minute venue change from a brewery with room for 80 to a far-larger art museum that still could not accommodate everyone who came. Buttigieg delivered a shorter version of his campaign stump to the 200-odd supporters outside the venue from atop his soap box: a park bench.
All this for a primary election still over 10 months away.
“In New Hampshire, it’s never too early,” Debbie Nest, a longtime Nashua resident, said. She had come to see Buttigieg for the second time in a month.