OPINION: ‘I’d vote for him, but he’s gay’ — that qualm about Pete Buttigieg

A Democratic Donkey symbol rests against a rainbow LGBTQ flag background
(Greta Long • The Student Life)

I didn’t expect most of what happened in the recent Iowa Democratic caucus, and I bet you didn’t either. In particular, I didn’t expect Pete Buttigieg to declare victory before any votes had been reported — we might expect that from the blustery Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., or the gaffe-prone Joe Biden, but not from Buttigieg. 

The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana had always seemed so matter-of-fact and unpretentious, the last candidate you would expect to count their eggs before they hatch (if you’ve seen Paul Rudd portray him on “Saturday Night Live,” you’ll know what I’m talking about).

But even more unexpected was that Buttigieg turned out to be right. And so, here we are, and there he is, closer to winning the Democratic nomination than any other candidate. Buttigieg currently leads the Democratic field in pledged delegates, having won one delegate more than Sanders in Iowa and having tied with Sanders for the most delegates in the subsequent New Hampshire primary.

Sanders narrowly won the popular vote in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and (at time of publication) the Vermont senator now has only one less delegate than Buttigieg. Still, Buttigieg has far outperformed supposed heavyweights like Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and it is now undeniable that this midsize city mayor is a force to be reckoned with.

Personally, I’ve always been a big fan of Buttigieg, so this is all great news to me. But, now that the possibility of him becoming the Democratic challenger to Trump is taken much more seriously, perhaps it is time to discuss a concern that I’ve often heard when expressing support for Buttigieg: that he can’t win the general election as a gay man.

The claim that a gay candidate can never win the general election has been voiced recently, among others, by far-right commentator Rush Limbaugh. But, anecdotally at least, I’ve heard this from family and friends who I know are not homophobic, but simply determined to make sure that Democrats nominate the best candidate to defeat Trump. 

My typical response is that someone who declines to vote for Buttigieg simply because he is gay would be highly unlikely to vote for any Democrat, because Democrats are strongly associated in the eyes of most voters with support for the LGBTQ+ community (at least, compared to Republicans). But that is mere conjecture, so perhaps it’s useful to start by looking at the data.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 78 percent of respondents would be willing to vote for a gay or lesbian candidate for president. This was less than for a black, Hispanic, Jewish or female candidate (96, 94, 93 and 93 percent respectively), but significantly higher than for a candidate who is over 70 (69 percent) or a socialist (45 percent). Perhaps Sanders, the 78-year-old socialist, should take note.

The 78 percent who would be willing to vote for a gay or lesbian candidate includes 82 percent of independents, and even 62 percent of Republican respondents.

Perhaps respondents don’t want to admit to a pollster that they would be uncomfortable with a gay candidate, thus overestimating Buttigieg’s level of support. Except, if anything, Buttigieg exceeded expectations in both Iowa and New Hampshire, neither of which are exactly bastions of social progressivism. 

According to The New York Times, he seems to have done especially well among rural voters, older Democrats and those who made their decision late — exactly the constituencies you might expect to be uncomfortable with a gay candidate.

Of course, one can’t deny Buttigieg has a long way to go; an especially serious obstacle is his poor performance among voters of color. The most likely explanation behind this isn’t his sexuality, but rather a combination of other factors, particularly Biden’s consistent polling lead among African American voters.

Going forward, Biden’s abysmal showings in Iowa and New Hampshire could create an opening for another candidate to capture his African American supporters, and there’s no reason for that to not be Buttigieg, whose positions align more closely with Biden’s than those of Sanders or Warren do. (The Wall Street Journal reports from South Carolina indicate that this may even be happening already.)

But beyond the polling data, there’s another crucial reason why Buttigieg’s sexuality may not prove so damaging: How he talks about himself, including his sexuality, is in furtherance of a sweeping broader vision for the country.

Obama had vision, as did Trump; for better or for worse, they reached a critical mass of voters who felt the system was not meeting their needs. Vision was the difference between Obama and Trump, who everyone was sure couldn’t win, and the likes of Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney and John McCain, who were supposed to be surefire winners until they weren’t.

Buttigieg’s vision is of an America that keeps its promises of liberty and justice for all, one that relies on scientific and rational policy-making to fix its problems without tearing down the good alongside the bad. He advocates for an America that puts the power of government to work for the people and not for any ideology and recognizes that true unity is rooted in acceptance of diversity.

No other candidate, in my opinion, expresses a vision as compelling as Buttigieg’s, and his recent outstanding performances suggest I’m not the only one who thinks so. It is vision that makes or breaks a candidate. With the right vision, anything can be accomplished — even winning the presidency as a gay man.

Ben Reicher PO ’22 is from Agoura Hills, California. He joined his high school newspaper in ninth grade because he loved to argue, and hasn’t stopped since.

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