I’ll cut to it: There was no high hopes dance, nor dancing of any kind, from the Mayor Pete faithful Wednesday night in Durham. So if you’re hoping for some sort of guerilla dispatch that describes the painfulness of the dance in-person, some live recounting of that paean to caucasity—that routine which, like all good dances, involves absolutely no footwork whatsoever—you should just return to Twitter.
Really, you shouldn’t read this at all, as I’m still trying to figure out, mere hours later, what the hell I got myself into. No lede that centers the writer’s process is worth its self-indulgent salt, which is a half-hearted way of saying I know this is bad writing but I’m writing it nonetheless: Initially, I was looking for a debate watch party in Durham, NC, ideally for supporters of Bernie Sanders. And I didn’t search very hard, because the first result I came across was a viewing party for proponents of #PresidentPete, and I immediately emailed my editor to ask if attending this was, and I quote, “a good story idea or just a form of self-punishment.” He responded, minutes later, writing, “Oh man I would LOVE that,” which, I realize just now, technically wasn’t an answer to my question.
And so that’s how I found myself cordoned off from the rest of a bar with 25 supporters of Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana, to watch him and watch them cheer him on.
My intentions were part sadistic, part sociological: In recent weeks, Buttigieg has steadily risen in the polls and the public consciousness, from a South Bend upstart to someone who might actually have a fighting chance in Iowa and New Hampshire three months from voting day. As someone who also attended a widely-reviled college and is also a former consultant, I can’t imagine me having a baseline of palatability for a broader U.S. audience, and that’s without even centering a campaign on my being a polymath container of mayonnaise. If there was a constituency for Mayor Pete, beyond those who prefer the mild at Popeye’s and self-identify as sapiosexuals, I wanted to see it for myself.
Fifteen minutes before the debate’s start, I arrived at the venue, a brewpub staked out in such a great location that it has no need to concern itself with being good. It is, however, spacious, and upon seeing it listed online I feared I’d encounter teeming masses of Buttigieg supporters, just droves of people who support the notion of protests but wonder if this is the time and place for it. Instead, the TVs in the main bar area were tuned to various offshoots of ESPN. MSNBC existed just in the private event space, demarcated with balloons and PETE 2020 signs, both hewing to a palate of mustard yellow and navy blue, the closest that one could get to Notre Dame’s pantone pairing while avoiding a lawsuit.
Applying a nametag, and dodging the opportunity to add my name to a Mayor Pete mailing list, I staked out a seat by the communal appetizers (fried pickles, nachos, and artichoke & feta flatbread). I removed my laptop to take notes and began to realize the degree that this intrusion might seem like a declaration of war, just another case of a Bernie bro stoking division within the Democratic party. I reminded myself that I was there to listen and observe, and as I heard myself say to my seatmate Dave*, a recent Notre Dame graduate (who wore a sweatshirt with precisely this information), I was undecided on who I was there to support.
*All names changed.
Full disclosure: I envisioned this becoming a live blog of sorts. Having watched other debates with both apolitical types and dogged activists, I thought the drama in Atlanta would provide a backdrop to spark conversations with the room. I imagined ample shouting at the TV, a heavy reliance on the closed captioning to figure out each candidate’s musings. I thought there would be energy, joy, soul, or just something palpable in the room, and that by the end, I’d at least have a framework on which to hang a story, complete with a somber (or optimistic!) endnote, a remark about how far apart (or not!) the left and center found themselves a year out from 2020.
Readers, there was none of this. In truth, this was a debate watched in near-silence. The Pete supporters were enraptured with the five screens in the room, and they shut down any bursts of spontaneity quite quickly: This included shushing our waiter, the funniest and most dynamic person in attendance, so that they could listen to Cory Booker’s closing statement. I don’t say this to betray their sociopathy, but to underscore that these folks were capital-P Politicos, watching this debate as degenerate gamblers watch preseason football, which is to say: intently.
Still, since you’ve read this far, I feel obligated to deliver a few tidbits from my notes that, among this crowd, pass for color. Speaking of which:
—Of the 26 people in the room at the start, I can confidently identify 23 as white, which seems about the right proportion. Notable exceptions are an Asian man in a #YangGang MATH ballcap, and a black woman who, despite the room nearly being at capacity—and I don’t want to read too much into this, but it bears mentioning given this candidate’s lily-white support—managed to find herself sitting next to an empty seat.
—Said another way, by 9:20 P.M., there are more people in this room reverse-sitting in chairs, a la the cool teacher getting down to brass tacks with students caught smoking during recess, than there are black people, period. It looks like a casting call for Lake Wobegon residents.
—Mark, almost certainly the youngest person here, explaining why he likes Pete: He’s values first, not policies first. Later, I ask if he’s entrenched in Pete’s camp, and he confesses to being open to just voting against Biden in the primary. Something we agree on! I press pause on the idea of telling him that Rudy was actually offsides.
—When Cory Booker notes that he’s the other Rhodes Scholar on the stage (Buttigieg is one, in case you haven’t heard), begrudging applause breaks out, with one woman in the crowd saying, to no one in particular, “It’s true.” Bit of a “game recognize game” moment for some folks whose top five rappers include both Macklemore and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
—At the first commercial break, right around an hour in, Todd*, a dead ringer for Eastbound and Down’s Stevie Janowski, comes around to see who all is here to cheer on Pete. He’s wearing a BOOT EDGE EDGE t-shirt, with three pins: Pete 2020, Vote Pete 2020, and New Era, featuring Pete’s face and a US flag. Once again, I state my temporary position of undecided, and he passes me a lime-green folder with some reading material.
—The next day, I open the folder, which consists of 13 single-sided pages outlining Pete’s policies, printed weirdly in landscape format and taking up approximately 55% of the space. It’s the sort of inefficiency that would get you the boot at McKinsey, or would at least lead to them subsidizing your business school degree and you returning in two years as a principal at a higher paygrade.
—Halftime temperature check with Dave: Pete is doing “fine,” even though he (and Steyer) are getting “all the tough questions.” Klobuchar is also having a good showing, although Dave complains that Tulsi Gabbard is getting too much time and Buttigieg not enough. (FACT CHECK: Buttigieg ended the evening speaking the second-most of anyone.)
—He asks me my thoughts, and I mumble something about it being hard to reach conclusions with 10 candidates on screen.
—Really, the most interesting part of being here is seeing who gets the biggest claps and pops of laughter. Because this room is so invested in the horserace, these always come when expected, like an audience for The Big Bang Theory responding to bright APPLAUSE lights: Amy Klobuchar’s quip about raising money from her ex-boyfriends kills, and her line about Nancy Pelosi, a woman, beating Trump every day falls just shy of “yas queen!” territory. If there is such a thing as a Klobuchar Konstituency, this room might be it.
—At the second commercial break, organizers start talking about the plan for Pete 2020 supporters to walk in an upcoming area holiday parade, which leads to this utterance that is, um, highly debatable: “You can’t get a more progresssive group than Chapel Hill, walking down Franklin Street.”
—The latter portions of the debate get pugnacious, and this is a nervy time for the Buttigieg crowd. In quick succession, Klobuchar picks on the favorite son for his inexperience, and Tulsi Gabbard calls out his recent remarks about sending troops to Mexico. When Buttigieg is challenged, his supporters react much like he does: shocked that someone would have the temerity to question his position. There’s also an anticipation in these supporters, like owners who have trained a child to perform advanced arithmetic at parties, or fans watching as a favorite, untested comedian turns on an incorrigible heckler. They don’t quite know if he’ll stick the landing, but ultimately the landing is unimportant: Anything he says earns ovations, if not shrieks of laughter, as he excoriates these opponents for being so stupid. He is, in their eyes, the smartest, best boy in the room.
—An incomplete documentation of audience responses sparked by the other leading candidates:
*Joe Biden – “Bless his heart,” during his first answer about getting Republicans to work with him
*Elizabeth Warren – Robust chuckling as she faces repeated questions over her position on Medicare For All
*Kamala Harris – Major applause as she takes down Tulsi Gabbard for her previous appearances on FOX News
*Bernie Sanders – One isolated bit of applause for his criticism of Trump tweeting at 3 AM; otherwise, his sole support comes from our waiter (and your very silent correspondent). In his closing statement, when he mentions his wide donor base, one lady says loudly, “We’re gonna beat you!”
—No one in the room gets sloppy drunk, or even interesting, throughout the evening; most close out their tabs at a responsible hour. Still, 22 of us are here to hear Buttigieg name drop Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta, in his closing statement. For me, this is the most frustrating part about Buttigieg: He’s eerily similar to someone like Beto O’Rourke, in the sense that he’s done the reading but has apparently done it for the sole sake of completing his homework. He knows about historic inequities, and can talk about them eloquently, but his sense of addressing them terminates at their briefest mention; his proposals to create a level playing field fall short, in a way that’s laughably apparent even on paper.
At 11:20 PM, as the debate wraps up, I ask Dave for his final thoughts. Pete did fine, he says again, despite the tough questions from the moderators, who, he reiterated, he was not a fan of. I pack up and leave through the long-closed remainder of the restaurant. The air outside is cold and bitter; it’s trite to say I feel as if I’ve escaped from a bubble, but there is, with this change of environment, a sense of a return to normalcy.
Still, it was a draining, costly night. I saw something in that room that I can’t forget, and something that, much to my dismay, doesn’t appear to be isolated: Having avoided Twitter during much of the debate, I returned to see most every mainstream pundit claim that Buttigieg and Klobuchar were the big debate winners. And so I write this from a strange place, confused and bereft, with perhaps less joy, understanding, and hope than ever before.