Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg doesn’t downplay or play up the fact that he’s openly gay. There’s no need to. He’s already shown that he can mount a coherent, sustained and compelling presidential campaign and candidacy, one so compelling that he’s now the frontrunner in the Iowa Democratic primary.
But Mayor Pete had to get the pesky issue of being an openly gay presidential candidate off the table. He did that by announcing it and then surging to near the top of the Democratic presidential heap. Along the way, he has grabbed tens of millions in Democratic donor cash. Most polls show an epiphany of sorts on the part of most Americans on whether they can see themselves voting for an openly gay candidate for president. The majority say they’re “not uncomfortable” with that.
This doesn’t mean that this is now a total non-issue. Politics and polls have shown that what people tell pollsters about a presidential candidate’s race, gender or sexual preference is one thing, and what they do in the privacy of the voting booth is another.
The question is will voters disregard an openly gay candidate when they step behind the voting booth curtain?
There’s little doubt that any new social enlightenment on gays stops dead in its tracks with conservative evangelicals. There’s also much evidence that while older voters have shed their worst fears of an openly gay presidential candidate, there are still plenty who have not. The brutal political reality is that they vote in far greater proportions than the group that’s the most enlightened and accepting of one’s sexual preference — millennials.
Mayor Pete is not naïve and realizes that being gay has some potential downside in crucial presidential vote states. But it’s likely no longer the deal breaker for him that it would have been in times past.
What he’s done is carve out a position as a younger and more forceful alternative to Joe Biden with centrists, and a counter candidate to the leftist positions of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders on the big-ticket issues, most importantly health care. Warren and Sanders have gone to the wall on Medicare, but polls show that the overwhelming majority of Americans are terrified at the thought that they’ll be taxed more to pay for it and lose their private health insurance choice in the process.
Trump and the GOP will have a field day with this during the general election campaign, scaring moderate and centrist voters.
Buttigieg has made sure people know that he, like Biden, is the pragmatist on this issue by simply advocating a public option be included in the Affordable Care Act. Buttigieg has bought some more insurance against any voter ambush on his sexual preference by tackling the issue of police violence against blacks. He’s proposed a plan to bring racial justice to policing.
This plopped him on the radar of many black voters who know little to nothing about him. He’ll have to peel off a percentage of their vote to be a top ranking candidate in the South and other states where the black vote is crucial to any Democratic presidential candidate’s fortune.
Buttigieg will have to hope that his out front stance on police abuse will counter the lingering anti-gay bias among some segments of black religious evangelicals. Past polls have shown that they have been among the loudest in professing anti-gay attitudes. How much that has changed will be tested by Mayor Pete as the Democratic presidential nominee.
For now, Buttigieg is not viewed publicly as a gay candidate for president, but as a Democratic presidential candidate, and that’s a giant step forward.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of “The Impeachment of President Trump?” (Amazon Kindle). He is a weekly co-host of “The Al Sharpton Show” on Radio One. He is also host of the weekly “Hutchinson Report” on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.