RENO — Running consistently four places back in the Democratic presidential race, Pete Buttigieg knows that, in order to gain ground, his campaign needs “to think a little more deeply about the issue of electability.”
Whether he can prevail in a crowded Democratic field, and then defeat President Donald Trump, is “something that’s holding some folks back.”
He spoke in a sit-down interview Saturday on his first campaign stop to Nevada outside Las Vegas. On the day’s agenda: meeting with affordable-housing activists and striking auto workers; greeting campaign workers at the opening of his Reno headquarters and holding a rally with supporters at Sparks High School; and speaking at an evening state Democratic fundraiser in Reno with other candidates and their surrogates.
With the weather threatening — it would drop an unseasonably cold rain and snow on the good-sized crowd lined up outside the school gym entrance — Buttigieg answered the electability question and gave his views on the impeachment process, why evangelicals support a president not known for his piety, America’s standing in the world and issues of importance to Nevadans.
“What we’re seeing is that most voters, even if they name a candidate, are saying that they haven’t made up their mind. So it feels that it’s wide open, but that’s going to start shifting,” he said in an interview at Washoe County Democratic Party headquarters before the rally. His Nevada ground game is revving up, campaign staffers said earlier, with about three dozen workers statewide, even in places such as Elko and other areas not known to be particularly kind to Democrats.
“In order to win we need to be, first of all, viable to begin with,” he said. “I think the polls demonstrate that we are. We’re in the mix. Second, you need the resources to compete and to go the distance. And we’ve been able to demonstrate that. And then the third is ground game. And that’s what we hope to demonstrate whether it’s in our events today or in the activities between now and when the caucuses actually begin.
“We still need to speak to people who don’t feel like they really know us, or who are just now tuning into the process, and are trying to figure out exactly who fits what they need the most,” he continued. “Look, if you decided that you want the nominee who is the furthest ideologically left, you’ve got your choice. If you decide you want the nominee who has spent the most years in Washington, you’ve got your choice. Everybody else, I think, is potentially our voter.”
Buttigieg, 37, is the youngest candidate in the race. He is in his second term as mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
“If you look at history, every time that the Democratic Party has won (the presidency), at least in the last 50 years or so, it’s been with a candidate who represented a new generation, had not spent a lot of time in Washington,” he said, rounding out his answer on electability. “Every single time we’ve tried to go with the safe choice, the most Washington-tenured choice, every single time we’ve done that, at least since Hubert Humphrey, we’ve come up short. … I think the way to be electable is to be inspiring. We should vote for the person we think would make the best president. That’s how we’re going to be elected.”
An Episcopalian, Buttigieg talks frequently about religion and faith on the campaign. Asked why evangelical Christians might choose to support Trump, Buttigieg said some might have bargained with themselves and decided “to accept a number of other things that are an affront to their own values” in exchange for like-mindedness on other issues, such as abortion.
Younger people of faith, he said, “are much more skeptical of the Republican Party and of this president in particular.”
According to Buttigieg, the impeachment inquiry against Trump found its momentum from the president’s “on-air confession” of his administration’s dealings before, during and after his July phone call with the president of Ukraine.
“In fact, nobody has made a more powerful case for impeachment than the president himself,” Buttigieg said. Democrats, he said, “have to support that process, which really should be a constitutional process with very little to do with party politics anyway. And at the same time, we’ve got to keep focusing on the things that will impact people in everyday life.”
Concerns about issues such as health care tend to be universal, he said. For Nevadans, issues that stand out include public land use, climate change and labor unions.
“The real attack on the integrity of public lands” is important in a state where 85 percent of the land is federally owned, and climate issues are “a little bit different here, not just because there’s a lot of climate vulnerability in areas that face water shortage but also because so many of the climate solutions are here, from solar energy to electric vehicles.”
Regarding labor, “in most parts of the country we’re talking about the harms from the reduction of unionization. Here, I’m still concerned about that, but we also see labor really flexing a lot of political muscle and using it to make workers better off. And that’s exciting, because that can be a model for the rest of the country.”
Candidates often hold interviews with reporters back-to-back on campaign stops, and the clock on this one was running out.
Regarding America’s standing in the world under Trump, the president’s critics universally cringe. So did Buttigieg, commenting on how other nation heads interacted with president at last week’s U.N. General Assembly in New York.
“What you saw was the leaders of the world tolerating or humoring rather than admiring the American president, and the cost of that is enormous,” he said. “If we’re not a country the world looks to for leadership, from our adversaries running amok to our allies beginning to make plans for post-American world where our country can’t be counted on, I think that’s bad for America and it’s bad for the world.
“Because American values — at least when we’re at our best, around human rights and democracy and freedom — are needed. Now more than ever, the world needs America.”