The power, and limits, of Pete Buttigieg’s ‘press-friendly strategy’

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg and his husband Chasten address supporters in South Bend, Indiana, formally announcing that he is suspending his 2020 presidential campaign.

Pete Buttigieg reached the top tier of Democratic presidential candidates through a combination of skill, substance, timing, and savvy media strategy.

With pivotal help from Democratic communications strategist Lis Smith, the 38-year-old former mayor developed a reputation as one of the most accessible candidates in national politics.

Politico’s Carla Marinucci broke the news about Buttigieg’s exit from the race on Sunday evening. CNN and MSNBC carried his speech live a couple hours later.

“Pete was able to will himself from a no-name mayor of South Bend, Indiana to top-tier presidential contender partly because he talked to the press: in the early parts of his campaign, he talked to everyone all the time,” said Charlotte Alter, the TIME magazine correspondent.

Alter interviewed Buttigieg repeatedly and observed him up-close for several years for her new book “The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For,” about millennial politicians like Buttigieg.

“His campaign made it easy. You could get an interview with him. His staff would pick up the phone and comment and not stonewall you,” Alter said. This was “all part of Lis Smith’s ‘go everywhere’ strategy, and it worked: Where other campaigns try to shelter their candidate from the news media, Pete was giving so many interviews to so many outlets that it sometimes felt like an exclusive with him would only last for a couple days or hours before he’d talk to someone else.”

Alter said it was a smart strategy for somebody with virtually no name recognition. “It also worked well for a candidate as disciplined as Pete — in all those interviews, and in several bus tours full of press, he rarely made any gaffes,” she said.

Some journalists and columns were introduced to Buttigieg years before he entered the presidential race — sometimes for politically strategic reasons.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote Sunday about traveling to South Bend and spending time with Buttigieg in 2016. “I remember being struck above all by how deeply he had examined and how carefully he spoke about issues like freedom, globalization, automation. He was a walking tutorial, and a sweetly earnest one at that. I wondered then if he could upsize that trait for a presidential campaign. Over the past year, I — and the rest of America — got the answer.”

Once he declared his candidacy for president, Buttigieg went on dozens of TV shows and podcasts. According to the campaign, the total number of outlets and mediums eventually neared 300.

The campaign credited Buttigieg’s nationally televised town hall on CNN with catapulting him “onto the national stage” and “introducing him as a fresh face,” according to a memo released by the campaign on Sunday and obtained by CNN.

In the hours following the town hall, “we raised $600,000 dollars and within in a couple days, hit the DNC’s 65,000 donor threshold to qualify for debate,” the memo said.

He also participated in a town hall on Fox, went on talk shows like “The View,” and arranged a John McCain-style bus tour with reporters.

Veteran political journalist Walter Shapiro tweeted Sunday night, “I want to praise Pete Buttigieg and Lis Smith for running the most press friendly and accessible major presidential campaign since the heyday of John McCain. I hope that someone saves the tapes of all Buttigieg’s countless interviews as a lesson for all future candidates.”

Alter pointed out that Buttigieg’s parents were linguistics and English professors. “He knows how to use words to create a narrative, and there’s a reason why his campaign was always rooted in message and not policy,” she said. “He believes in politics as a form of storytelling, and the media is a crucial part of that strategy.”

She pointed out that Buttigieg’s relationships with journalists and news outlets did not shield him “from tough stories on his struggle to reach voters of color or his record in South Bend. And as his campaign wore on, he put up more walls and found himself in more of a defensive crouch. You only get one media debut, and he did it big, but it doesn’t last forever. In some ways it shows the power and also the limitations of media exposure: being press-friendly can make you a contender, but it can’t make you a winner.”

FOR THE RECORD

— David Axelrod’s takeaway: “You have the sense that this was not the end for Pete but the end of the beginning…” (Twitter)

— Will Leitch observed: “If Buttigieg runs again in, say, 2032, he will still be 28 years younger than Bernie Sanders is right now.” (Twitter)

— Chris Cillizza with the big Q heading into Super Tuesday: “Does Joe Biden have a second act?” (CNN)

— USA Today’s Monday editorial, written before Buttigieg stepped aside, and updated afterward: “Beating Donald Trump requires that the Democratic candidates without realistic paths to the nomination drop out sooner rather than later…” (USA Today)

— “A day after he was accused of sexual harassment by a journalist, MSNBC decided to keep host Chris Matthews off its airwaves during coverage of the South Carolina primary results,” Maxwell Tani reports… (Beast)

NYMag’s cover story with a photo of Bloomberg at his childhood home: “He’s Buying.” (NYMag)

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