WASHINGTON - Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay U.S. presidential candidate to mount a major campaign, has emerged as one of the leaders in the Democratic Party’s early nomination contests.
While Buttigieg’s sexual orientation has not been a major issue in the Democratic race, many believe it would become a point of contention if he won the nomination to face President Donald Trump in November.
For his part, Buttigieg neither trumpets nor hides his sexuality. On the campaign trail, he speaks of being gay in terms of family values, emphasizing he is in a loving, committed same-sex marriage, and what his candidacy says about inclusion and equality in America today.
“One of the best things about this campaign has been being able to meet, especially young people who don’t always know if their family or their community has a place for them or their country. And being able to insist, the fact that I’m standing here, that, yes you do [have a place],” Buttigieg said recently at a Democratic town hall in Las Vegas, Nevada.
WATCH: Is America Ready to Elect a Gay President?
The 38-year-old former two-term mayor of a small city in Indiana and a military veteran of the Afghanistan war has become a legitimate contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, emerging as the delegate leader after the first two nominating contests.
The early viability of Buttigieg’s candidacy is the latest sign of increasing public acceptance of diverse sexual orientations in the United States.
“Pete’s success so far in this campaign represents an evolution in American politics, upending traditional notions of electability and proving that America is ready to elect its first openly gay president,” Elliot Imse, communication director at the LGBTQ Victory Fund, said.
LGBTQ is an inclusive designation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other sexual orientations.
It was less than five years ago that the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in a ruling that dramatically advanced LGBTQ rights in America. Over the past two decades, public support for same-sex marriage, seen as an indicator of acceptance of the LGBTQ community as a whole, has flipped from 60% opposition to more than 60% approval.
Activist groups like the LGBTQ Victory Fund, Imse said, have helped get “Pete’s race off the ground” by providing financial backing, volunteers and visibility in LGBTQ media outlets.
Casting himself as a moderate, Buttigieg earned the most pledged delegates and finished second in the voting in the Iowa caucuses behind progressive Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. In the New Hampshire primary, Buttigieg came in second, while former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumed front-runner, fell to fourth and fifth place, respectively, in the two contests.
However, as the race shifts to states with large African American and Latino populations, it is unclear if Buttigieg can maintain his momentum, and whether his sexual orientation will cost him votes.
A Feb. 17 ABC/Washington Post national poll has Buttigieg trailing with only 9% support, far behind Sanders, who has 32%, Biden, with 16%, and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a late comer to the race, with 14%.
Buttigieg has struggled to gain support from minority voters. In a Washington Post/Ipsos poll of African American voters taken in January, he had the highest unfavorable rating among the candidates.
The same poll showed 40% of African American respondents saying they are reluctant to vote for a gay man.
Michael Fauntroy, who teaches political science at Howard University in Washington, downplayed Buttigieg’s sexuality as disqualifying and said, “most voters do not place as high priority on this” as they do on larger issues like health care and jobs. Buttigieg’s newcomer status in national politics better explains his challenge to connect with minority voters, Fauntroy said.
“I think the bigger issue, as it pertains to African Americans and Latinos, is the fact that they just don’t know him relative to the other candidates,” Fauntroy said.
Buttigieg’s sexuality did not pose an insurmountable obstacle in 2015, when he won reelection for mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a city with a significant African American population. Buttigieg got 74% of the vote.
“If African Americans were sort of disproportionately inclined to not vote for somebody who is gay, you would think that would have shown up there as well,” said David Barker, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington.
So far, Buttigieg’s sexual orientation has not proved divisive within the Democratic Party, which touts support for greater diversity and counts minorities as key components of a broad coalition. Outside the party, however, he already has drawn fire for his sexuality.
Conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, whom the president recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, provided a taste of negative attacks that could await Buttigieg. During a recent radio program, Limbaugh contrasted Trump, whom he called “Mr. Man,” with Buttigieg’s same-sex marriage, and said Americans are “still not ready to elect a gay guy kissing his husband on the debate stage [as] president.”
Some observers say such comments may resonate with social conservatives but could alienate moderates who have supported Trump.
“I think any effort like that, on the part of Rush Limbaugh or others, is likely to engender sympathy [for Buttigieg] among mainstream middle-class, suburban soccer moms,” Barker said.
Responding to Limbaugh, Buttigieg contrasted his union with his husband, Chasten, to those of Trump, who has married three times and was reported to have paid hush money to an adult film star to remain silent about an alleged affair during the 2016 campaign.
Each of the Democratic candidates running this year, Barker said, “has something about their demographic profile that makes them out of the ordinary,” be that age, gender, religion or sexuality.
While these issues can be exploited by the opposition, none should pose an insurmountable barrier if the party comes out in force to vote for the eventual nominee, he said.