Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Mayor Pete Was Robbed

Iowa Democratic party screws up caucuses; Buttigieg hardest hit.
February 4, 2020
Mayor Pete Was Robbed
(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The Iowa Democratic Party fumbled in historic fashion. And no matter what the various campaigns tell you, it was Pete Buttigieg who was hardest hit.

For starters, Iowa was the early state that was the most natural fit for Mayor Pete’s campaign. He is a fellow midwesterner and he comes off as the type of nice young man that every Iowa grandparent loves. His campaign dedicated astonishing amounts of resources there. He was up with TV ads in the state in September and kept the ads up in the waning days while his competitors either ran out of resources or decided to save them for later states. His grassroots operation there was widely heralded as the most expansive and well-resourced. His campaign cited record crowds from the Des Moines capital to hollowed out eastern Iowa farm towns like Oelwein.

And on caucus night the results bore that out . . . maybe? At least they seemed to bear it out until “quality control” issues prevented the Iowa Democratic party from being able to release results. Whether Pete would’ve ended up actually winning the caucus—and his campaign team is arguing he would have—or just finish a close second—which is what the internal numbers released by the Sanders campaign show—is something we will either never know or know too late. Either way Pete’s opportunity to take the mantle of the center-left wing in the party was punted to another day and another contest.

Despite all this, the received wisdom among the conspiratorial lefty grassroots (and their trouble-making allies on the MAGA right) was that the utter incompetence of the Iowa Democratic Party was really just a front to keep King Bernie down. The Conspiracy-Industrial Complex that fuels some parts of the populist left were basically made for a moment like this.

As if on cue, Sanders stan and squad member Ilhan Omar, New York Times writers, and every shitposter under the sun posited that the DNC purposefully skunked the results to keep Bernie down. A screenshot of a payment Pete’s campaign made to the company behind the crap app that broke down on caucus night was being autoreplied to every big political account on Twitter. So despite the fact that Pete has the most to lose as a result of the screw-up, not only do the left’s professional grievance mongers claim that Bernie is the real victim—they then turn around and try to make Buttigieg the villain.

But as important as the horse race and the social media spin wars are, what was lost last night was much more significant than that.

The Iowa Democrats epic fail robbed not only Mayor Pete, but all of us, of a rare moment of progress and shared joy in a political era that almost seems like it’s designed to deny us those things.

Buttigieg’s success in the lead-off caucus wasn’t just about Mayor Pete or his supporters—it was a moment for gay and lesbian Americans across America. And they deserved a moment to revel in it. Mayor Pete was poised to be the first gay person to ever win a delegate for a major party presidential nomination and he was about to do it in startlingly strong fashion.

He did his best, in the circumstances, to try to make the moment happen on its own, channeling Bill Clinton’s “comeback kid” speech in 1992 with a rousing victory declaration that came before anyone knew the non-results. It was absurd and kinetic, one part history another part drama club. But no matter how well he stuck the landing, you can’t will a moment like that into existence.

As Mayor Pete brought his speech to a close, a hyped crowd shouted the name of his husband—“Chasten! Chasten!”—and yet when he finished and the MSNBC Voice of God Brian Williams came in over the roar and made a deadpan remark about how it sounded like a victory speech from Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who was standing with his husband Chasten.

There was a hint of sarcasm in his voice with regard to the “victory” but no hint of significance with regard to the “husband.” Amidst all the focus on the disastrous caucus process, Williams missed the moment, too.

Mayor Pete’s groundbreaking candidacy has been poo-pooed by the extremely online left and given short-shrift by many in the media who treated him like just any other privileged white male.

But while our jaded political class missed the significance of Mayor Pete’s moment, Iowans got it. Say what you will about the state being unrepresentative, white, and bland—but the same voters who horsetraded in high school gyms Monday night were the catalysts for Barack Obama’s campaign and among the first activists to fight for gay marriage in their state.

Many of them saw this as another opportunity to be on the front end of a something.

The Iowans at Senator Obama’s victory party in 2008 heard an inspiring and uplifting ode to hope, one that insisted the time had come for change. But for all the bold promises of that night, of beating back the politics of fear and doubt and cynicism, Obama didn’t extend any particular hopefulness about marrying the person of his choice to a closeted Pete Buttigieg who was surely watching from across the plains.

Last night, Mayor Pete said of his campaign that “an improbable hope became an undeniable reality.” Twelve short years ago, for both Obama and Buttigieg, marriage equality alone seemed to be too much to hope for, an out and proud and married Mayor Pete giving a speech to the same caucus goers as Obama did would have been like something from another universe.

And it almost wasn’t. The undeniable reality almost really happened.

For the thousands of gay Americans who never even imagined that it would be possible to see this moment, it’s a wait they are used to. Many of them spent their entire lives in the closet, in fear. Fear of being found out. Of deadly illness. Of being fired or ostracized. They spent decades searching for any small oasis of acceptance and liberation. They didn’t dream of gay presidents or gay marriage. These concepts were so foreign that they didn’t even compute. Simply going on a date night with your crush in Iowa without having to worry about it would’ve been a godsend.

The idea of a married gay man winning the Iowa caucuses? Absurd.

As it turns out, it wasn’t absurd at all, the absurdity was the caucus process itself.

Which is what makes the Democratic party’s if-you-don’t-laugh-you’ll-cry incompetence so frustrating. And made a moment that should’ve been Mayor Pete’s, a reality denied.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.