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From Mayor to President in 2024?

The next Democratic presidential nominee might emerge from the ranks of the nation’s local leaders.
June 28, 2022
From Mayor to President in 2024?
South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a campaign stop on September 24, 2019 in Clinton, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

At the end of every sports season—often the day after the championship is decided—there is a rush to put out the “way too early” rankings of which teams are the favorites to win it all the next year. The grace period for the White House horserace is a tad longer, partly because it only occurs once every four years but mostly because the pundits and the public revel in throwing roses or tomatoes at the victor. But by the time the midterm primaries get underway, our attention is directed at the next set of potential presidential contestants that the parties will field.

Which is to say: now. The time has arrived. The game is afoot.

The easy money, of course, is on a Biden-Trump rematch in 2024. And, naturally, others are already jockeying for position should one or both of those men decide not to run. On the Republican side, it all seems straightforward, with governors and senators keeping their names in the headlines and their faces on television just in case Trump should decide not to run again but instead to preside over the party from Mar-a-Lago.

On the Democratic side, however, something more interesting could be in the offing: a mayor as the party’s next star and standard bearer, perhaps becoming the first in American history to go directly from a mayorship to the presidency.

I can hear the “But Buttigieg!” naysaying already. But before I respond to that, let me explain why there’s a betting chance that the Democratic party elevates a mayor to the national stage.

First, large cities and metro areas are more diverse and progressive than the rest of the nation, and 83 percent of the U.S. population lives in urban areas. This means that the bench for future Democratic party leadership mostly likely is filled with talent from the cities, many of which have demographics that resemble the party’s winning electoral coalitions. In other words, a city is both the training ground and the proving ground for the future of the Democratic party as presently constituted.

Consider this: Nine of the ten largest cities in the United States—each with at least a million people—have Democratic mayors (the remaining one is a progressive-minded independent):

  • New York (2020 census population: 8.8 million)—Eric Adams, Democrat
  • Los Angeles (3.9 million)—Eric Garcetti, Democrat
  • Chicago (2.7 million)—Lori Lightfoot, Democrat
  • Houston (2.3 million)—Sylvester Turner, Democrat
  • Phoenix (1.6 million)—Kate Gallego, Democrat
  • Philadelphia (1.6 million)—Jim Kenney, Democrat
  • San Antonio (1.4 million)— Ron Nirenberg, independent
  • San Diego (1.4 million)—Todd Gloria, Democrat
  • Dallas (1.3 million)—Eric Johnson, Democrat
  • San Jose (1.0 million)—Sam Liccardo, Democrat

The mayor of San Jose, California, the tenth-largest city, has more constituents than the governors of eight states. Mayors of these cities must appeal to Americans across class, race, ethnicity, and ideology to win elections in ways that Republican mayors and even some statewide-elected officeholders do not. Moreover, the largest cities in several red and purple states have Democratic mayors, a reality that savvy mayors would use to their advantage in testing out messaging and policy appeals to those working-class white voters often necessary to win statewide elections, and thus, the Electoral College votes those states hold.

Second, although the vice presidency is still sometimes called considered a steppingstone to the White House, it is not. George H.W. Bush is the only vice president since Martin Van Buren in 1836 to ascend directly to the presidency as the result of an election—all others since became president as a result of the sitting president’s death or resignation. Richard Nixon and Joe Biden are the other two vice presidents to become president only after time away from elected office, making Biden the only Democrat in the bunch in nearly 200 years.

The previous three Democrats to win the presidency going back nearly 60 years—Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter—were all surprise nominees, seeming to arise as the frontrunner out of nowhere. Carter and Clinton, both governors, were virtual unknowns when they declared their presidential runs. Carter, like Biden, came on the heels of a scandal-laden White House. Clinton leveraged black voters in the South to rescue his campaign after early scandals and primary losses. Obama, then a state senator, famously rode the popularity of his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention to the national stage and unseated heir-apparent Hillary Clinton in the 2008 party primary.

In this vein, Biden is either the beginning of a new trend wherein pragmatic establishment candidates are the Democratic party’s preference, or he’s an anomaly to the party’s recent record of White House victories coming from unexpected places. Incumbency considerations aside—and reporting suggests Biden is a bit irritated that some Democrats are questioning his commitment to running in 2024—my money is on the unexpected candidate, and it seems to me the party is primed to back a mayor.

Which brings us at last to “But Buttigieg!” Yes, I know, Buttigieg. Mayor Pete lost the Democratic party nomination in 2020. But remember, that was after he won Iowa, tied to win New Hampshire, and finished third in Nevada. This is an exceptionally strong performance for the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana (population 100,000)—a performance that Rudy Giuliani, running as “America’s mayor” before being unceremoniously ushered to the cable news circuit, could only have dreamed of matching in 2008. Among Buttigieg’s problems was his inability to win over black voters, something that mayors of large cities have necessarily proven effective at doing. But his solid showing given the odds stacked against his campaign seems to support my argument; the iron is hot for striking.

Where does this leave 2024 sans Biden? It is anyone’s guess which mayors might make the leap. A group of political scientists examined the political careers of mayors of 196 cities, and only 15 percent ran for a higher office, with just 5 percent ultimately winning one. The authors found that mayors are most attracted to nongovernmental jobs after their tenures, and the few who do seek higher office find being a U.S. senator or governor most appealing. But it’s also true that four current or recent mayors ran in the 2020 Democratic presidential election—Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Bill de Blasio, and Wayne Messam (not to mention the former mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Bernie Sanders). There is no reason to think a wide-open 2024 field would not have several mayor candidates, too—and that one of them could be a breakout star.

A few figures to keep an eye on: Mitch Landrieu, a former two-term mayor of New Orleans, navigated a racially diverse city in a time of turmoil in pro-democracy and principled ways that could resonate widely given our present political moment. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s name was floated during the 2020 cycle. Recently elected New York City Mayor Eric Adams is also a possibility, especially given his law enforcement background and his moderate position on a range of issues that upsets party progressives but may be helpful in building a nationally viable electoral coalition. There are several black mayors, and a particularly impressive set of black female mayors, who might be interested in testing how far descriptive representation can take them with the party’s most loyal voters. (As Vice President Kamala Harris and Senator Cory Booker can attest, such support is not a given.)

It is an open question whether the aphorism “all politics is local” still holds true at a time when politicians are finding electoral success by nationalizing every issue. But local politics are not only the most consequential in our daily lives, cities are what Aristotle said were sized perfectly to “human dimensions”—large enough to maintain some sense of anonymity but small enough to still feel connected to your compatriots. So it might be that the path out of the present political polarization damning our democracy will arise from the bottom up rather than top down. And it might just take a mayor to make that happen.

Theodore R. Johnson

Theodore R. Johnson was a writer at The Bulwark and a senior advisor at New America. He is the author of the book When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America (Atlantic, 2021). Twitter: @DrTedJ.