Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg announced he was ending the presidential campaign in which he made history as the first openly gay man to win delegates in the race for the nomination of a major political party.
His exit comes a day after his disappointing fourth-place finish in South Carolina and two days before Super Tuesday, when he was expected to continue to struggle amid the dominance of Sen. Bernie Sanders and resurgence of former Vice President Joe Biden. Buttigieg's departure from the once-crowded field also comes a day after billionaire Tom Steyer suspended his campaign.
"Pete believes this is the right thing to do for our country, for our party and for Americans across the country eager to heal our divided nation, defeat this president and work to fix our broken politics," a campaign aide said ahead of Buttigieg's expected comments Sunday night. Buttigieg was expected to speak in his hometown of South Bend at 8:30 p.m. EST.
Buttigieg's success in the campaign, even aside from his personal story, was a remarkable achievement. As the mayor of a midsize Midwestern town, he rose from relative political obscurity to become a viable candidate for the White House.
His narrow, one-delegate victory over Sanders in Iowa was overshadowed by the vote-counting chaos there - and his win remained in doubt until it was confirmed after a final recanvass and recount were completed.
A week later, Sen. Amy Klobuchar surged into a third place finish in New Hampshire, eating into Buttigieg's support among the center-left bloc of voters. He finished second there to Sanders by 1 percentage point. His campaign never found its footing after that, and he failed to reach 15% support in both Nevada and South Carolina.
Buttigieg's exit before Super Tuesday also bucks the past 20 years of history in the Iowa Democratic caucuses. Every Democratic winner of the caucuses since 2000 has gone on to be the Democratic Party's nominee.
But with his victory in Iowa, Buttigieg achieved what would have been considered politically impossible just a decade ago.
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And on the night of the caucuses, an emotional Buttigieg was clearly struck by the significance of what he had accomplished.
He said his campaign's success taught him to "believe in American belonging" and that it left him "remembering how it felt to be an Indiana teenager, wondering if he would ever belong in this world."
"Wondering if something deep inside him meant that he would forever be an outsider. That he might never wear the uniform, never be accepted, never even know love. Now that same person is standing in front of you, a mayor, a veteran, happily married, and one step closer to becoming the next president of the United States."
Buttigieg came out in a 2015 op-ed in the South Bend Tribune, months before being elected to his second mayoral term with 80% of the 10,000-plus votes cast.
In June, he told The Des Moines Register that he did not want his sexuality to be the only thing he was known for.
"I am proud of who I am," Buttigieg said. "I'm certainly very proud of my marriage and my husband. We don't shy away from that. It's also not the only thing that defines me."
Buttigieg's Democratic opponents immediately responded with well wishes as news of his departure from the race broke.
"Thank you, @PeteButtigieg. I know you'll continue giving back and serving our country for many years to come," Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted.
Thank you, @PeteButtigieg. I know you'll continue giving back and serving our country for many years to come.
- Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) March 1, 2020
President Donald Trump reacted to Buttigieg's dropping out Sunday by again implying Democrats are trying to get Sanders out of the race.
"Pete Buttigieg is OUT. All of his SuperTuesday votes will go to Sleepy Joe Biden. Great timing. This is the REAL beginning of the Dems taking Bernie out of play - NO NOMINATION, AGAIN!" the tweet said.
Pete Buttigieg is OUT. All of his SuperTuesday votes will go to Sleepy Joe Biden. Great timing. This is the REAL beginning of the Dems taking Bernie out of play - NO NOMINATION, AGAIN!
- Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 1, 2020
Buttigieg, a former Navy intelligence officer who served in Afghanistan, was one of the few military veterans in the race. As a Rhodes Scholar with degrees from Harvard University and the University of Oxford who speaks multiple languages, he also had some of the highest academic credentials in the race.
During the campaign, he pitched himself as a moderate alternative to progressive candidates like Sanders and Warren, one who was also younger and more in tune with the current Democratic party than Biden.
At 38, he was the youngest of the presidential candidates, yet he failed to connect with voters under age 30, who, ironically, tended to favor the 78-year-old Sanders. On the other hand, he performed well with older voters.
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From the beginning, Buttigieg's candidacy was haunted by headlines about his inability to win the support of minority voters, particularly African-Americans. Despite this efforts to make strides with black and Latino communities, his poll numbers remained dismal with those demographics. And that lack of support left him unable to compete as the race moved into more diverse states like Nevada and South Carolina.
During the campaign, Buttigieg faced criticism for his response to a police shooting of an African-American man in South Bend, as well as the lack of diversity on the town's police force.
His campaign did find enthusiastic support among wealthy Democratic donors and was a top recipient of donations from Wall Street contributors. Those contributions led Sanders to paint him as the candidate of the powerful corporations, who would not represent the interests of working Americans.
Buttigieg, who trailed only Sanders and Warren in contributions of less than $200, defended his campaign's acceptance of large-donor donations. He told Fox News that while he was "not a fan of the current campaign finance system" he was "also insistent that we have got to go into this with all of the support we can get."
Contributing: Maureen Groppe, USA TODAY; Barbara Rodriguez, The Des Moines Register; Andrew Clark, The Indianapolis Star
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2020 election: Pete Buttigieg, a moderate, ends his bid for president