When it comes to the 2020 Democratic field, President Donald Trump’s public rhetoric and put-downs often clash with his private assessments and concessions.
Behind closed doors, he has repeatedly, if at times begrudgingly, praised what he sees as Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) populist acumen and large crowd-draws that are still, in his words, “not as big as Trump[’s].” In recent months, he’s asked close advisers if they think Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) would be “tougher” to beat in a general election than they’d once thought, and has wondered if she’s a “fighter” to be reckoned with. And earlier this year, the president went as far as to tell his aides to publicly deny that the campaign’s own internal poll data had the president lagging behind former Vice President Joe Biden in crucial states.
This is not the case when it comes to Mayor Pete.
At a campaign rally in Hershey, Penn. on Tuesday night, the president took a rare step to acknowledge Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana and a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, by giving his fans a phonetic sounding-out of his last name and comparing him to Alfred E. Neuman, whose famously goofy ears and face have long been on the cover of MAD magazine.
“I mean, you have Alfred E. Neuman who's running, who's like this guy? This guy Buttigieg, BOOT-EDGE-EDGE. Can you believe he’s doing well? He’s like the leading fundraiser. I dream about him! It’s true. No, BOOT-EDGE-EDGE!" Trump said.
Back in April, the president exclaimed during a SiriusXM chat that “I think I’d like running against” the mayor. But the last time Trump mentioned Buttigieg on Twitter was 205 days ago, a lifetime in his rapidly changing personal fixations. “Hard to believe that @FoxNews is wasting airtime on Mayor Pete, as Chris Wallace likes to call him,” he wrote in May.
Sources close to the president said that tracks with what Trump says privately. Three senior officials on his 2020 campaign said that the South Bend mayor rarely, if ever, comes up in any meaningful way during high-level strategy meetings, while other prominent Democratic presidential contenders regularly do.
When Buttigieg’s name does occasionally come up in private conversation or strategic and political discussions involving the president, it’s typically just Trump making fun of him, sometimes zeroing in on his face and physical appearance, two sources with knowledge of these comments said.
“We’re not game-planning for Pete,” a separate Trumpworld source familiar with state strategies said. “I don’t think anyone is.”
Trump’s top lieutenants feel the same way, largely due to Buttigieg’s abysmal poll numbers among black voters, a bloc whose large turnout the Democratic Party has relied on heavily to win and keep the White House. The collective shrug about the mayor’s candidacy was replicated in interviews with nine current and former Trump campaign operatives, White House officials, affiliated Republican groups, and GOP allies in Congress, who shared details of internal discussions and strategy with The Daily Beast.
“There are few who scare us less than Mayor Pete,” said a senior Trump re-election campaign official, who specifically cited some of Buttigieg’s dramatically lacking poll numbers among African-American voters. “[Andrew] Yang scares us more than Mayor Pete,” the source added, referencing the entrepreneur outsider registering in the low single digits.
“I don’t worry about him whatsoever,” another top GOP official added. “He has a serious diversity problem.”
In assessing Buttigieg’s shortcomings, Republican sources did not broadly acknowledge the president’s own difficulty attracting a diverse base of support. A Hill-HarrisX poll from October found that a whopping 85 percent of black voters said they would opt for any Democratic presidential contender over Trump.
The president’s deep unpopularity with black voters aside, operatives said that in the context of the Democratic primary, Buttigieg was doomed for failure.
“I don’t see a snowball’s chance in hell that he actually wins the nomination,” one top Republican Party official said. “We all know how he’s polling with black South Carolina Democrats.”
The latest figures in the first-in-the-South primary present a grim outlook for Buttigieg. While he earns 6 percent of support in the state, according to the latest Quinnipiac University poll, he comes in at less than 1 percent support with African-American voters there in the same survey—an issue that’s stifled national traction in his campaign since the summer. The official speculated that those numbers are likely to spill over to the rest of the nominating contest, particularly with diverse, delegate-rich states like California and Texas voting on Super Tuesday.
“He’ll get creamed,” the source projected.
Though Trump will routinely inveigh about the “socialists or communists” competing in the Democratic primary—chief among them progressive figures Warren and Sanders, the latter of whom actually is a self-avowed democratic socialist—the Republican president does acknowledge the appeal of their policy platforms. As The Daily Beast reported in September, Trump has repeatedly told GOP donors, aides, and close friends this year that running against “socialism” in the general election may not be “so easy” due to its populist attractions, despite what other conservatives or cable-news personalities might say about left-wing candidates.
The president, however, sees no real threat of that sort coming from Buttigieg or his campaign, according to those familiar with Trump’s thinking. Team Pete has, indeed, staked out a middle path in the Democratic primary that has made Buttigieg a nemesis to left-flank activists and figures in the party and base.
“He’s not going to be further left than Warren or Sanders, and he’s not going to be more establishment than Biden,” Barry Bennett, who served as a senior adviser on Trump’s 2016 campaign, said. “I don’t see a lane for the mayor.”
Asked for comment on this story, a 2020 Trump campaign spokesperson simply told The Daily Beast on Wednesday, “the campaign has never expressed a desired candidate, and we are ready for whichever flawed and lackluster candidate emerges from the field.”
Competing among a primary field that has, at times, spanned nearly two dozen aspirants, Buttigieg has caught steady momentum leading up to early voting, set to kick off in two months. In several Iowa polls, the mayor has surpassed Sanders, Biden, and Warren. In New Hampshire, he averages just behind Sanders, who hails from neighboring Vermont, and is currently ahead of Biden, a familiar national presence, and Warren, who shares the border in Massachusetts.
“I’m not trying to be a Lis Smith stan, but damn she’s done a good job building up the name I.D. and getting national recognition,” one GOP official acknowledged about Buttigieg’s chief communications aide, before outlining a litany of reasons why media attention doesn’t necessarily translate to electoral success in the primary.
As the field winnows, however, Buttigieg nonetheless stands out for another reason: he more closely aligns with Republican positioning than the vast majority of Democratic contenders. Some voters, in particular of the boomer variety, say the millennial mayor’s candidacy reminds them of a bygone era in American politics, when bipartisanship was king and centrism was considered the most unifying approach to governing. His résumé, albeit thin, is dotted with private sector experience, including a stint at the elite management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., where he worked for health insurance and defense-related industries. He also served in the military.
“Pete is a mayor from the middle of the country and a war veteran who won't hesitate to point out that the president skipped his time to serve,” the Buttigieg campaign's national press secretary, Chris Meagher, told The Daily Beast. “He will be a president who brings the country back together by uniting people behind bold solutions to our country's challenges.”
One Trumpworld Republican even admitted that Buttigieg was a personal favorite early on, describing a “good vibe” from the mayor, whom the source also called a “polished orator.”
Other allies of the president also privately acknowledge the large sum of money he is sitting on, saying it’s likely enough to slog through the primary process. In the third quarter, Buttigieg’s campaign brought in $19.1 million, with $23.4 million cash on hand.
But none of that is cause for concern, multiple members of the president’s inner circle contended, arguing it’s simply not enough to tip the scales in his favor.
“Do I think he’ll have enough money to stay in? Probably,” Bennett said. “Do I think he has a shot? No.”