Pete Buttigieg likes to remind people that a year ago, all he had when he launched his presidential campaign were four staff, a big idea and an unknown – and unpronounceable – last name.
“There were sceptics, an awful lot of sceptics,” he said after the first round of caucuses in Iowa, where he beat Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders by a hair.
“Iowa, you have proved those sceptics wrong!” said the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
At 38-years-old, just three years older than the minimum age to be president, “Mayor Pete” is driven by a self-confidence that would seem excessive – arrogant, even – if he wasn’t sitting in second in polls leading up to New Hampshire’s primary on Tuesday, where he faces off against candidates who entered politics before he was born.
This faith in his destiny is not new: Buttigieg recalls raising his hand in high school when a teacher asked who would like to be president.
“I don’t know what it is we expect, that somebody kind of gets struck by lightning and then they turn into somebody who might become president,” he said in a recent New York Times interview.
He fully believes he can seize his moment: The representative of a new generation and the “total opposite” of US President Donald Trump, he wants nothing less than to throw “Trumpism itself into the dustbin of history where it belongs” and begin a new American era.
He has no other political experience other than his eight years as mayor of the town where he was born – a town of 100 000 inhabitants – but he argues that he is the only major Democratic candidate to have served in the military.
His Twitter profile begins with the phrase “Afghan veteran”.
Peter Paul Montgomery Buttigieg was born on January 19, 1982 in South Bend, to parents who were both English professors at Notre Dame University.
His father, a specialist in the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, was a Maltese immigrant who came to the US for his PhD, where he met Pete’s mother.
An only child, Pete grew up excelling in school. His path was typical of top students: He was accepted to Harvard, was awarded a prestigious Rhodes scholarship and spent three years at Oxford before being recruited by the elite McKinsey management consultancy in 2007.
“Nothing particularly sizzling,” Buttigieg said of his time at the consulting firm.
At 25 years old, politics brought him home to South Bend. He ran for treasurer of Indiana but was handily defeated. But in 2011, the mayor’s office opened up, and he was elected. This would become his springboard into national politics.
A Navy reservist for several years, Mayor Pete put his mayoral duties on hold in 2014 and spent seven months in Afghanistan, where he worked as an intelligence analyst.
When asked if he joined the military to boost his political career, he admitted to the podcast The Daily that he has asked himself the same question.
“If the answer is yes, does that mean the service wasn’t pure in some way?” he asked rhetorically.
But all those years, Buttigieg lived with a deep secret: He is gay.
“If you had offered me a pill to make me straight, I would have swallowed it before you had time to give me a sip of water,” he admitted last year.
He didn’t come out until 2015, before he was re-elected mayor. Through Hinge, a dating application, he soon met Chasten Glezman, who would take his last name after they married in 2018. The couple has said they want children.
“My marriage to Chasten has made me a better man,” Buttigieg said. “It has moved me closer to God.”
Buttigieg has cultivated an image of a Midwestern man: Traditional, devout (he was baptised Catholic but attends an Episcopalian church). The comedy show Saturday Night Live has parodied him as shy and boring.
His rivals are irked by his grand, sweeping phrases such as “We’ve got to fix the engine of our democracy,” and by his plans to reform the constitution and the Supreme Court.
Critics point out that he has virtually no support among black voters, a large and important Democratic demographic.
But the former mayor’s strategy is not to win only Democrats. In November, he intends to seek votes from the centre, among disillusioned Trump supporters, what he likes to call “future former Republicans”.
When he officially announced his candidacy in April 2019, Buttigieg said he recognised the “audacity” of his White House bid – a clear reference to Barack Obama’s signature phrase “the audacity of hope”.
“If you are looking at the lessons of history over the last half century, and every time we have won or my party has won the White House, it has been with a candidate who is new in national politics,” he said, evoking Obama as well as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
It’s an advantageous comparison: Carter and Clinton were governors, Obama a senator. But it’s true that the Obama camp soon took notice of the young mayor with sharp, clean sentences and a baritone voice.
Not long after Trump’s victory, Obama was asked by The New Yorker about the Democratic succession.
Obama mentioned senators Tim Kaine and Kamala Harris, but then added: “And then there’s that guy in South Bend, Indiana. The mayor.”
But he couldn’t remember his name.