What sets his exploratory committee apart from the sprawling list of would-be challengers to President Donald Trump? The young mayor of South Bend, Indiana, says its his approach.
"Im conscious of the fact that at no other moment in the last hundred years would somebody like me be taken seriously in this conversation," Buttigieg, pronounced "BOOT-a-jedge," told CNBC in an interview Friday.
"Theres clearly something different. Theres an appetite for a new generation."
Hes not just referring to his age — though at 37 years old, he barely qualifies for the presidency under the Constitutions minimum of 35.
As a Midwestern mayor reshaping a small manufacturing town that was enervated in the early 1960s by the abandonment of now defunct carmaker Studebaker, Buttigieg believes his story and experience are whats needed to beat Trump on the Democratic ticket.
Buttigieg is a Rhodes Scholar and Afghanistan War veteran who can boast of being the countrys youngest mayor of a city of South Bends size when he was elected in 2011 at age 29.
And if he wins the Democratic nomination, Buttigieg would be the first-ever gay presidential candidate: He came out in a local papers op-ed pages in 2015 amid his re-election campaign for mayor, and married his husband, Chasten Glezman, in June.
Hes also an undiluted progressive in a state that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in the 2016 election. To be fair, South Bend is located in the relatively liberal hamlet of St. Joseph county — the city is a stones throw from the University of Notre Dame and hasnt had a Republican mayor since 1972. Still, Buttigieg chalks his electoral success up to his willingness to innovate in a city whose economic engine had long ago stalled out.
"When I took office, you know, in the community the conversation was about whether we could get back to some version of our days making Studebakers in the 60s," he said. "And we had to be very honest about the fact that that sort of economy was not coming back."
After banning the phrase "weve always done it that way" from his governments vernacular, Buttigieg worked to push the city in a more tech-friendly direction. The city launched a public data portal in 2013, for instance, and more recently has committed to plans to build a tech hub at Ignition Park that were sparked by Buttigiegs predecessor.
The efforts to change South Bend are delivering, at least by one metric: More people are moving in.
South Bend lost nearly a quarter of its population in the wake of Studebakers departure in 1963 — down to about 100,000 by 2010. But in 2015, an Indiana University demographer reported that the city had grown in three of the past four years.
"Weve been able to do things with data and technology that have improved the lives of our residents," Buttigieg said. "I think thats the style of government and leadership that would be pretty welcomed in Washington right now."
His resume aside, Buttigieg faces a daunting uphill battle.
A small-city mayor has never before won the presidency, let alone one who still has microscopic name recognition compared to his Democratic opponents, or Trump. Same goes for his age — no one in their 30s has ever won the presidency. And an openly gay man has never come close to winning a U.S. presidential election.
"Hes an upcoming star in the Democratic Party," said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, but a successful presidential bid is "not likely, because nobody knows who he is."
Buttigieg concedes that his bid is a long shot.
"I understand this is an underdog project," he said, "but I would also say that in a season like this, the less you resemble the others, the less you resemble whats come before, the better."
Buttigiegs views on climate change, taxes and health care prove his progressive credentials — though theyre less to the left than other candidates.
Less than a month after announcing his exploratory committee, Buttigieg hasnt put forth a point-by-point policy agenda yet, nor has he officially launched his presidential campaign (though he claims the latter is coming soon).
He says thats by design. In a recent ABC interview, Buttigieg explained the importance of laying out a set of values before diving into "the 14-point plan," a trap he says his party too often falls into. His key values as a candidate are democracy, security and freedom — specifically, asserting a progressive definition of "freedom to" as opposed to conservatisms "freedom from."
"Freedom to start a new business because you have health care figured out," Buttigieg gave as one example when asked by CNBC. "Freedom to marry the person you love."
He frames himself and his campaign as distinct from his Democratic competitors, including Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California and Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren. Yet when asked about his views on a handful of major policy subjects, his views tended to align closely with theirs.
Like those candidates, Buttigieg said he supports the"premise" of the "Green New Deal," the radical resolution proffered by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., to uproot and re-plant the U.S. economy with a focus on addressing climate change and the environment.
Booker, Harris, Warren and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand have all co-sponsored the resolution. Buttigieg, however, took a more nuanced position.
"I think the way its been laid out in that resolution is a great framework, but its also a beginning, right? Its more a set of goals and principles than it is a particular policy, and thats fine," Buttigieg said.
But what they "get right," he said, "is that there really is a state of emergency when it comes to our climate, and we need to recognize that that calls for an emergency level of resources and attention."
Similarly, his support for universal health care isnt so hard-line as, say, Kamala Harris.
Where Harris advocated eliminating private insurance all together as part of her "Medicare for All" proposal, Buttigieg said in a recent interview that "I dont see why" having universal health care "requires" doing away with private insurance.
He said specifically that hes not calling for government-provided health care. "The simplest way to think about it is," he said, "if Medicare today includes Medicare supplemental, why wouldnt Medicare for all include a Medicare supplement for all who want it?"
Buttigieg would also raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, many of whom he says "do not pay their fair share" to the Internal Revenue Service.
"I think theres a lot to be said for changing the balance of what we tax wealth versus work," he said.
Asked if theres any room for tax cuts, Buttigieg said "theres a lot to be said for expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit" or even proposing a negative income tax for some.
In interviews and promotional materials, Buttigieg clearly paints himself as a disruptive candidate. His website envisions "a new generation of American leadership" and even describes Buttigieg as a "millennial Mayor."
Yet Buttigiegs presence and rhetoric are a far cry from the sort of polemical bluster that one might expect a disruptor to employ.
In his campaign videos, his voice is usually calm; in his answers, hes often professorial. Even when tagging along with road workers to fill one of thousands of potholes that cropped up after a mid-winter thaw, Buttigiegs volume rarely modulated as he explained not only the four steps to filling a pothole, but the policy that funds this city function, as well.
Buttigieg TWEET Contending with one of the leading enemies of the American mayor: the common pothole.
"I would call it inclusive," Buttigieg said when asked why his rhetoric appears tamer than other candidates.
"I think we need to have language that people can understand and get on board with," he added. "Thats how you govern in a place like South Bend."