Why Does Pete Buttigieg Never Wear a Blazer?
The surprising upstart of the 2020 Democratic Presidential campaign has made going jacket-less his signature. What that’s saying about his electability and his image vis a vis Donald Trump
Pete Buttigieg at his campaign announcement on Sunday, April 14 in South Bend, Ind. The fresh-faced politician has made going jacket-less his signature. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
By Jacob Gallagher
Updated June 3, 2019 2:52 p.m. ET
STARTING ON JAN. 23, when Pete Buttigieg announced his exploratory committee for a presidential run, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., has largely blazed the campaign trail without a blazer. Mr. Buttigieg, 37, the first openly gay major-party presidential candidate, has become the surprise upstart of the 2020 Democratic race, and a surprisingly casual one, too--appearing at nearly every campaign stop and media opportunity sans sport coat, letting his pressed white shirt (its sleeves always rolled) suffice and his usually-blue necktie fly free. In the past, candidates from Barack Obama to George W. Bush occasionally went jacket-less (stumping in Iowa in August can get balmy) and this time many male candidates have occasionally worn casual attire—see Bernie Sander’s windbreakers, or Joe Biden’s open—collared shirt and aviator sunglasses—but Mr. Buttigieg in particular seems to have made jettisoning a jacket his signature.
During the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush would occasionally shed his jacket, opening the door for more casual stump styles. PHOTO: NY DAILY NEWS VIA GETTY IMAGES
According to his campaign, the look is not a deliberate, pointed statement. Mayor Pete, as he is sometimes known, was unavailable to comment but his spokesperson Lis Smith relayed that “when you’re out running a national campaign, it’s just not comfortable or convenient to be wearing a suit or even a suit jacket 24-7. So, to the extent that the Mayor has a campaign uniform, it was born out of practicality.”
Prioritizing comfort may have worked in his favor, said Lynn Vavreck, a professor in the Department of Political Science at UCLA and the co-author of last year’s “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America,” who found Ms. Smith’s answer completely reasonable. During what can be a relentless hamster wheel of appearances, speeches and handshaking, Mr. Buttigieg “seems to be very comfortable” in his shirt-sleeves “and that’s allowing him to go out and have these genuine interactions,” said Ms. Vavreck. “That level of authenticity, or the genuineness, I think, is something that people pick up on.”
Other observers, like New York City-based clothing image consultant Amanda Sanders, note that Mr. Buttigieg’s casual uniform—even if not calculated and focus-grouped—is still functioning as branding. On the stump, everything from how you wave to how you eat a slice of pizza to, yes, how you roll up your sleeves, can send signals to voters. So what else, besides pure practicality, is Mr. Buttigieg telegraphing by leaving the jacket behind? For starters, recognizable consistency. “It’s already a trademark,” said Ms. Sanders. His rolled sleeves and exposed tie function much like the Nike Swoosh or the red Coke can, helping to visually delineate him from the 20-some odd candidates lobbying for voters’ attention.
Unlike Mr. Buttigieg, Texas’ Beto O’Rourke has been far less consistent in his campaign style. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
As mayor of South Bend, and during a 2017 run for chair of the Democratic National Committee, Mr. Buttigieg did step out in his shirt sleeves from time to time, but for the 2020 campaign, he has fully leaned into the look, appearing on both his high-profile CNN and Fox News town halls and late-night talk shows without a sport coat. Patsy Cisneros, the founder of Los Angeles-based political consulting firm Corporate Icon, likened Mr. Buttigieg’s rolled sleeves to fellow candidate Beto O’Rourke’s early penchant for leaping onto tables at campaign events. “This is garnering [Mr. Buttigieg] some really well-needed publicity to have people read up on him, look for articles about him and think, ‘Oh, there’s that guy.’” You may not know much about his policies yet, but at the very least, you’ll know Mr. Buttigieg as that guy who doesn’t wear a jacket.
His sport-coat-free image also underlines Mr. Buttigieg’s status as the youngest 2020 candidate. At just 37, Mr. Buttigieg is the among the first millennials to make a major run for president, a member of a generation accustomed to casual workplaces and dress-how-you-want careers. “I have a lot of young tech clients who have just never bought a jacket; they’ve never bought a suit,” said Ms. Sanders. You “walk into a boardroom and they’re wearing a black T-shirt or hoodie.” A more casual dress code is something Mr. Buttigieg shares with 35-year-old Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, his fellow elder-millennial. At least the Mayor hasn’t started outlining policies in a hoodie just yet.
In a race where 76-year-old former Vice President Joe Biden is an early Democrat frontrunner and 72-year-old Donald Trump is running for reelection, Mr. Buttigieg may be benefiting from playing up his youthfulness. “Anything that contrasts with Trump right now is gonna get attention,” said Ms. Sanders. Professor Patrick Egan, a professor of Political Science at New York University, added that Mayor Pete’s rolling-up-my-sleeves approach draws a “plainspoken contrast” to the “grandeur” of Mr. Trump, who favors pricy Brioni suits.
Not every candidate could easily adopt Mr. Buttigieg’s look. Due to his relatively short record as a public figure and heretofore low profile (South Bend is only the fourth-largest city in Indiana, after all), he has an opportunity that, say, Mr. Biden, Mr. Sanders or Senator Cory Booker do not: He can easily stick to a low-key, more casual outfit, because Americans haven’t seen him wear a suit on CNN or around the Capitol for years. In other words, he isn’t petrified in suited form.
Prof. Egan pointed out that Mr. Buttigieg’s chosen outfit plays slightly against his background as a military veteran and Rhodes Scholar who worked at McKinsey, a white-collar consulting firm. “Although Buttigieg’s presentation is casual…he’s a guy who has a very formal and conventional resume in terms of the educational pedigree and the kinds of jobs he’s held.” But there Mr. Buttigieg is, at nearly every round table, TV plug and stump speech in a pressed shirt but no jacket. Modern.
Mr. Buttigieg’s consistency on the campaign trail has played out in contrast to another youngish candidate: Beto O’Rourke, 46. In his past, Mr. O’Rourke (who declined to comment for this story) played bass in a post-punk band, worked as a nanny and was a part of a hacker collective. When it comes to his style choices as a politician, he has wavered between embracing his rebellious roots—he wore a rolled-sleeve, open-collared blue shirt on the April 2019 cover of Vanity Fair—and rejecting them—he wore a suit and tie during his CNN town hall. Though the former congressman from Texas burst out of the gate, raising over $6 million the day he announced, he was soon languishing in the middle of the pack in polls. “It might make sense that he would be trying out different ways to present himself to the public,” said Prof. Egan. As for Mayor Pete: He “has had a really successful launch for a guy who wasn’t really well known to voters six months ago, and so I think my sense is that when you’ve got something that’s working for you, you stick to it.”
Although the consistent jacket-less look is so far working for Mayor Pete, it’s still early days. It’s hard to imagine Mr. Buttigieg braving it in his shirt sleeves when he’s standing next to a sea of suited rivals at that first Democratic debate later this month. “I don’t know that he realizes that that [casual] image is not a brand that is conducive to being on the world stage,” said the consultant Ms. Cisneros, who feels there is a “time and place” for going jacket-less. When a male candidate is meeting with representatives in agriculture or is touring a factory, for instance, she recommends that he get off the campaign bus in a jacket, but soon take it off, as the rolled sleeves do make for a “very relatable image.”
Though she granted that Mr. Buttigieg’s apparent allergy to jackets underscores his youth, she said that’s not necessarily positive: “His clothing says, ‘I’m still an academic, I’m still a student. I’m running for student council president, not the president of the United States of America.’” Image consultant Ms. Sanders believes that Mr. Buttigieg will soon get the message and embrace the blazer: “Somebody will put the whisper in his ear that he needs to look the part now to go to the next round.”