Buttigieg says Dems can’t win Midwest in 2020 just by promising return to normalcy

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg held a Detroit fundraiser, July 28, 2019 | Andrew Roth

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg said at a Detroit fundraiser Sunday evening that Democrats seeking the nation’s highest office can’t win key Midwest states by simply promising a return to normalcy, citing problems like the economy that were already affecting the country years ago. 

“We have reason to question the virtues of going back to normal. And I’m here to say there’s no going back. Democrats should not try to promise a return to the 1990s any more than conservatives can return us to the 1950s,” the South Bend, Ind., mayor said.

“This is not about ‘Make America Great Again,’ because there is no honest politics based on the word again. There is only the future and the past and our obligation is to make sure the future is better.”

Buttigieg said that now-President Donald Trump’s upset victory in the 2016 election wasn’t surprising for people in the Midwest. 

“People like him usually rise to power in countries where there is a lot of turmoil, a lot of change and ground shifting beneath people’s feet. And again, that comes as no surprise to our region, it comes as no surprise to my generation,” said Buttigieg, 37. 

But if Democrats want to take back the White House, Buttigieg said the eventual nominee will have to win Midwest swing states like Michigan — and can only do so by discussing kitchen-table issues. 

“Our part of the country, I think, is where so much of the key to winning the presidency and moving the country forward lies,” Buttigieg said. “It is here, in this part of the country, that we understand that the reason that politics matters is the way that it affects is the way that it affects the everyday, that it’s not about who looked good on cable.”

Trump narrowly flipped traditionally Democratic states in 2016 — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — allowing him to win the presidency, despite winning millions fewer votes than Democrat Hillary Clinton. 

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg with supporters, July 28, 2019 | Andrew Roth

While Buttigieg recognizes that the Electoral College will still be in place for the 2020 election, he said that he wants that to change for future elections.

“Our democracy is the most important we’ve got, that’s why our enemies attack it. … At the end of the day, if you’re thinking about how to make sure that your government works for you, instead of the other way around, it is your vote, not your gun, that sees to it,” Buttigieg said. 

“I think we might even go so far in a democracy so as to choose our country’s leader by just counting up all the votes and giving it to the person who wins the most. It is traditionally what democracies do.”

This was Buttigieg’s third campaign event in Michigan. Danielle Atkinson of Mothering Justice gave brief remarks.

The mayor held a fundraiser in Saugatuck this month and also appeared, along with nine other candidates, at the national NAACP presidential forum last week. Buttigieg’s husband, Traverse City native Chasten Buttigieg, also has headlined two Democratic fundraisers in Michigan.

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Buttigieg, a military veteran, said he wants to see Democrats push back on the narrative that only one party is patriotic, invoking Trump’s racist tweets attacking U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit).

“I am done with the idea the flag belongs on one side of the aisle. The flag that I stood for when I was in uniform, the flag that was velcroed to my shoulder, the flag that I sometimes had the honor of helping to fold into a triangle and present to an excellent kid on behalf of this country — that was not a Republican flag; that was an American flag,” Buttigieg said. 

“And one of the things that that flag represents is the idea that you can speak out about injustice, criticize those in charge, including the president, and never be told to go back to where you came from.”

But while Buttigieg defended Tlaib, he had criticism for another Michigander: U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. 

“Freedom comes by way of education, which is why we need a secretary of education who believes in public education. Sorry to single out a Michigan person, but I think in this case we can all agree that we’ve got to do better,” Buttigieg said. “I’ll make you a deal: You promise not to judge Indiana by the vice president [Mike Pence]; we’ll promise not to judge Michigan by the secretary of education.”

Additionally, Buttigieg said it’s important to acknowledge that freedom in America has traditionally not been applied equally, especially for women and African Americans. 

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg merch, July 28, 2019 | Andrew Roth

Earlier this year, the Michigan Legislature became one of several states’ to pass bills restricting abortion access. And while Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has promised to veto the bills if they reach her desk, two ballot drives have been launched that would bypass gubernatorial action. 

“You’re not free as a woman in this country if your access to reproductive health and abortion care is dictated by male politicians and laws,” Buttigieg said. 

Ultimately, Buttigieg said that Democrats need to listen to their base rather than chasing Trump voters who are unlikely to vote for the Democratic nominee. 

“We outthink ourselves a little bit and we try to play it safe. And we try to picture who’s going to be compelling to somebody who we completely disagree with on just about everything,” Buttigieg said. “It tempts us to deliver something that’s not inspiring. I would argue the greatest risk we could take right now is to try to play it safe.”

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg held a Detroit fundraiser, July 28, 2019 | Andrew Roth

Though Buttigieg noted that his home in South Bend is just five or six miles from the Michigan border, he made his first campaign stop in the key battleground state just last weekend when he held a fundraiser in Saugatuck. 

Buttigieg will be one of ten candidates to participate Tuesday in the first night of the second presidential debates, which are at the Fox Theatre. The second debate is there Wednesday.

Andrew Roth
Andrew Roth is a regular contributor to the Michigan Advance. He has been covering Michigan policy and politics for three years across a number of publications and studies journalism at Michigan State University.


  1. Note: The National Popular Vote bill is 73% of the way to guaranteeing the majority of Electoral College votes and the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country, by changing state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), without changing anything in the Constitution, using the built-in method that the Constitution provides for states to make changes.

    It requires enacting states with 270 electoral votes to award their electoral votes to the winner of the most national popular votes.

    All voters would be valued equally in presidential elections, no matter where they live.


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