Factors Behind Buttigieg's Win

By Jack Colwell, The South Bend Tribune

May 8, 2011

SOUTH BEND--While it's not technically correct to refer to Pete Buttigieg, landslide winner of South Bend's Democratic mayoral nomination, as mayor-elect, he really is.

Republican mayoral nominee Wayne Curry will and should take the fall campaign seriously, raising important issues, and Buttigieg will not just take it all for granted.

But look at it this way:

Buttigieg, the impressive 29-year-old Harvard grad and Oxford Rhodes Scholar, not only won big with Democratic voters but also got far more Republican votes than Curry.

Curry got 655 votes in what appears to be the lowest Republican primary turnout since at least back to cars replacing horses on city streets.

One skilled election numbers cruncher estimated that Buttigieg got as many as 3,000 votes of Republicans who crossed over to have a voice in the Democratic primary -- the real election of a new mayor.

There's no precise way of determining this.

But precinct by precinct totals show that in Republican areas of the city, particularly in the 5th District, long represented by a Republican council member, the Republican primary total was way down, the Democratic primary total was way up, and Buttigieg won big.

In the last comparable city election, in 2007, there were 2,531 votes cast in the Republican mayoral primary, 6,043 in the Democratic mayoral primary. Neither side had thrilling contests, nothing like the focus this time on selection of a new mayor in a highly contested Democratic nomination race.

Totals this time: Republicans, 995; Democrats, 13,957.

That Democratic primary turnout, enhanced by the Republican crossovers, was much larger than most political insiders were predicting. Some predictions were for a turnout as low as 8,000. The median figure was about 11,000.

Because voter registration figures are way out of whack with reality, including many names of people no longer residing in the city, there is no way to figure an accurate percentage of voter turnout. But it was much higher than any of the calculations based on the phantom registration totals.

With four serious contenders for the Democratic nomination, most projections were that the winner would be the one getting a little over a third of the vote.

Buttigieg got 55 percent.

Nobody, including Buttigieg, thought as election day dawned that he would win that big.

But he had run an almost letter-prefect campaign since entering the race with scant name recognition -- and most of those recognizing it not knowing how to pronounce it.

Steadily, even if slowly at first, he began to get known and impress those he met, including some big contributors. He raised far more in campaign funding than any of the other contenders.

Buttigieg also built a superior organization for identifying potential supporters and getting them to go to the polls.

Key person in those efforts was Mike Schmuhl, Buttigieg's campaign manager and friend going back to the days when they both were students at St. Joseph's High School. Schmuhl had just been campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Granger, in Donnelly's survival of the 2010 Republican tsunami.

While they listened politely to suggestions from people more experienced in local politics, sometimes following suggestions, sometimes declining to pursue possible endorsements that could cut both ways, they followed their basic game plan.

Buttigieg and Schmuhl both say a key early endorsement came from City Clerk John Voorde, who had been a supporter of Mike Hamann, one of the top contenders for the nomination. They mailed out a letter from Voorde to older voters long familiar with the Voorde name.

Other defections came. Momentum came.

Endorsements came from the Chamber of Commerce, a factor in those crossovers; from The Tribune, a factor in undecided voters deciding for Buttigieg, and from the firefighters, a factor in capturing the Democratic base.

Finally, the contest had come down to Buttigieg and state Rep. Ryan Dvorak. Dvorak, without building up to it, turned to negative TV ads and mailings in the closing days. It backfired. Buttigieg responded quickly, lamenting the negative turn and saying that political attacks "don't create jobs, improve schools, reduce crime or fix vacant houses."

Buttigieg had the campaign resources to carry that message in TV ads and through the mail. Dvorak slipped to third. And Buttigieg became, well, actually, mayor-elect.