Pete Buttigieg entered the 2020 presidential race as one of the lesser-known faces — and without many people knowing how to even pronounce his last name. But the South Bend, Ind., mayor recently suggested that those attributes might work to his party’s advantage, saying that historically, it’s worked out for Democrats to nominate newcomers to the national scene for president.
After Buttigieg filed to be on New Hampshire’s presidential primary ballot, a reporter asked him whether stumbles and gaffes by fellow candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden were a "troublesome sign." Buttigieg said Democrats needed to turn the page and "build up a new normal."
"I'll also say when it comes to electability, every single time my party has won the presidency in the last 50 years, it’s been with a candidate who was new on the national scene, hadn’t spent a lot of time in Washington, and represented a new generation of leadership," Buttigieg said Oct. 30. "By contrast, every single time in the last 50 years we have put forward the most Washington-oriented candidate, we have come up short in November."
We wondered if Buttigieg was right that when Democrats have won the presidency in the last 50 years, it has been with a fresh face in Washington. It’s important to note that what happened in past elections doesn’t determine future outcomes. But when we looked back at past elections, we found Buttigieg was more accurate than not.
Buttigieg’s campaign said his claim references presidential elections since 1972. (Going back 50 years takes us to 1969, when there was no election. In 1968, Republican nominee Richard Nixon beat Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey, who was then vice president and had served in the U.S. Senate.)
Since 1972, three Democratic presidential nominees have won elections: Jimmy Carter in 1976; Bill Clinton in 1992 (re-elected in 1996); and Barack Obama in 2008 (re-elected in 2012).
Is it accurate to characterize them as "new on the national scene" when they were elected?
Generally, yes, but with some caveats, political science experts told PolitiFact.
For starters, Buttigieg’s claim makes sense if it’s understood to be about Democratic races when a candidate is running for the first time and not for re-election, said Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Incumbent presidents are not new on the national scene or to Washington, and re-election campaigns are subject to different dynamics. Political parties tend to back an incumbent seeking an additional term.
"Setting aside instances where an incumbent president is running for re-election, Democrats in the modern era have fared better when nominating new faces rather than Washington insiders," said Barry Burden, a political science professor and director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Carter served as governor of Georgia before being elected president in 1976. He had not held elected federal office.
"It is worth noting that Carter's presidency was seen as less than successful in part because of his outsider status in the party," said Casey Dominguez, who teaches American politics at the University of San Diego.
Carter lost his re-election bid in 1980 to Republican challenger Ronald Reagan. "Carter was certainly more of an establishment figure in 1980 than in 1976," Burden said.
Before his election in 1992, Clinton had not held elected federal office, either.
That said, including Clinton among those who were "new on the national scene" is somewhat debatable, Rauch said. By 1992, Clinton had been governor of Arkansas for more than a decade and had chaired the National Governors Association and the Democratic Leadership Council.
Clinton "was well known in Democratic party leadership circles, so under some definitions of 'the national scene,’ he might not count as an entirely new face," Dominguez said.
Experts agreed that although Obama was a U.S. senator by the time of his 2008 election, it is reasonable to consider him a candidate who was new on the national scene.
Obama had not completed his first term in the Senate and was not well known nationally beyond his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. His primary challenger in 2008 was Hillary Clinton, an establishment figure.
Michael Dukakis, a governor from Massachusetts who had never held elected federal office, won the Democratic party’s nomination in 1988. He lost the general presidential election to the Republican nominee, George H. W. Bush.
Buttigieg’s campaign acknowledged that Dukakis was unsuccessful in his bid for the White House even though he had not spent time in Washington. But Buttigieg didn’t say Democrats won every time they nominated someone who was not from Washington, said Chris Meagher, Buttigieg’s national press secretary.
"He said every time we have won, it's been someone new on the scene," Meagher said. "And every time we've put forward the most Washington-oriented, we have come up short."
Other Democratic nominees in the last 50 years who spent years in Washington and failed to win the presidency included senators and vice presidents.
Those presidential candidates were U.S. Sen. George McGovern (lost in 1972); former vice president Walter Mondale (lost in 1984); vice president Al Gore (lost in 2000); U.S. Sen. John Kerry (lost in 2004); and former U.S. Sen. and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton (lost in 2016).
"Frankly, there have been too few modern Democratic nominees to really test any specific claims about candidate age or 'outsider-status' on a candidate's chance of winning," said Dominguez, the professor at the University of San Diego.
"Thinking about the voters, one would have to look at initial poll standing to get a sense of how new each of these candidates was to the voters at large," Dominguez said. For example, while Kerry had a long career in the Senate, it’s not clear how well known he was to the national electorate.
Based on analysis of voter behavior, Dominguez said, "candidate qualities do not seem to be the main driver of voter decision-making in the general election."
"Outsider candidates tend to be younger than establishment candidates," Burden said. "But it is not clear if hailing from outside the Washington system is what matters or representing a different generational perspective."
Buttigieg said, "When it comes to electability, every single time my party has won the presidency in the last 50 years, it’s been with a candidate who was new on the national scene, hadn’t spent a lot of time in Washington, and represented a new generation of leadership."
What happened in past elections doesn’t determine future outcomes. But looking back at the past 50 years, three Democratic presidential nominees have been elected: Carter, Clinton, and Obama.
Before their election, Carter and Clinton served as governors but not in Congress. Obama was a relatively new U.S. senator who wasn’t widely known nationally before his presidential election.
However, political scientists say that while Clinton had not held elected federal office, he was well known in national Democratic circles, having chaired the National Governors Association and the Democratic Leadership Council.
Buttigieg’s statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information. We rate it Mostly True.