Why you should care
Because his tactic stands out in an internet abuzz with impeachment fervor.
Pete Buttigieg is hardly shy about his desire to impeach President Donald Trump. From a festival in Texas to cable television studios in New York City, the eloquent mayor of South Bend, Indiana, hasn’t hesitated to say so.
Indeed, every Democratic contender has shown at least some support for impeachment hearings in the wake of revelations about Trump’s request for Ukraine to investigate political foe Joe Biden. But unlike his opponents, Buttigieg is quick to warn that impeachment is unlikely to be successful — and that the best way to beat Trump will be at the ballot box next November.
In fact, if you tune in to his online presence (where most people get their news about candidates), you would be hard-pressed to see Mayor Pete use the “I” word at all. Aside from the occasional tweet quoting his statements, Buttigieg has stayed quiet online.
The Buttigieg campaign is the only one in the Democratic presidential field not to release a single campaign email or paid Facebook ad about impeachment.
He certainly has had plenty of opportunities: Buttigieg spent more than any other Democratic candidate on Facebook and Google ads last week, eclipsing $400,000, but didn’t mention impeachment once.
And it’s not just in the last two weeks where he has stayed mum online. Buttigieg has never sent an email mentioning impeachment, according to one expert who’s been tracking campaign emails since April from the Twitter handle @DemPrimaryEmails (the strategist, who works at a left-leaning digital firm, asked for anonymity because the person has done work for some of the Democratic candidates).
So is it a purposeful omission by the Buttigieg team? Yes, according to the candidate’s press secretary, Chris Meagher. “We didn’t think it was appropriate to fundraise off a national crisis,” he says.
That’s a striking strategy, considering that every other candidate in the field has capitalized on impeachment talk. Sen. Elizabeth Warren was the first, declaring back in April that “Congress must act” after the Mueller report was released … and directing Facebook users to sign a petition that added them to her campaign email list, to be hit up later for donations. As of early June, only five candidates had run Facebook ads supporting impeachment.
It’s really difficult for a mayor to insert himself into a congressional issue like impeachment.
Eric Wilson, Republican digital strategist
But that dynamic has changed in the past two weeks since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched the impeachment inquiry. With 17 emails mentioning impeachment, billionaire Tom Steyer has sent the most, according to @DemPrimaryEmails, which isn’t surprising given his near-total focus on the issue. Rep. Seth Moulton (who left the race in August) is second with eight, while former HUD Secretary Julian Castro and Sen. Kamala Harris stand out with six emails each. Harris, in particular, has made impeachment a priority talking point online, with Facebook ads as well. Unlike Warren, both Harris and Sen. Cory Booker (who has sent four emails on the subject) have used impeachment to directly ask for donations to fuel their campaigns. The Democratic base-juicing impeachment news also broke at an opportune time: the end of the fundraising quarter, when candidates are scrambling to fill their coffers to show monetary strength.
As noted by ACRONYM, a progressive digital nonprofit, the Buttigieg campaign has focused on “aspirational messaging,” which explains in part its decision to stay away from something as divisive as removing a president from office. “What we’re seeing in Washington from the other side of the aisle is the effect of putting politics above everything else,” Meagher says. “We can’t do that anymore. This is a time to put the country before politics.”
Still, there could be other factors at play. Some political strategists believe the Buttigieg campaign is waiting for early front-runner Biden to stumble … and is hoping to benefit if he does. The more moderate backers of the former vice president may not view impeachment positively. Eric Wilson, a Republican strategist who runs the digital politics blog Learn Test Optimize, says the explanation may be even simpler: “I don’t think there’s any grand strategy for the Buttigieg campaign around this. It’s really difficult for a mayor to insert himself into a congressional issue like impeachment.”
Given that impeachment talk has been swirling pretty much since Trump was sworn in, the decision not to fundraise off of it may also be a case of diminishing returns. “We’re seeing that the GOP is getting a fundraising boost from impeachment that for the left was just already baked in, since they’ve been talking about impeachment since 2017,” Wilson says. Take Steyer: The hedge fund manager mounted a national campaign for impeachment before jumping into the presidential race himself. On average, he remains below 1 percent in national polls.