As Pete Buttigieg travels across Iowa, he has taken to ending his speeches by reaching out his hand and letting his wedding ring glint under the lights.
This is the point when Buttigieg talks about the first time he came here as a volunteer on Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. “I was here in Iowa when this state changed what the country and the world thought was possible in American presidential politics,” he often says. “This state gave me permission to believe that someone like me could be wearing this wedding ring I’ve got on right now.” The ring flashes. The crowd cheers.
This closing pitch is part of Buttigieg’s not-so-subtle effort to link his candidacy to the last young outsider to win Iowa and then the presidency, another disciplined intellectual who ran on hope and unity. But it’s also a hint at the broader emotional arc of how Buttigieg’s identity informs his central argument about grace and belonging: that America is flawed but forgivable, that her sins are venial but not mortal, and that bigotry can be melted by love.
Just as Obama’s rhetoric on race was informed by his love for his white mother and grandparents, Buttigieg’s rhetoric about what he calls a “crisis of belonging” is rooted in his experience as a closeted gay man in Indiana.
Buttigieg is the first gay candidate for president to have a credible chance at winning, which is part of the reason why his bid for the White House gained notice in the first place. But perhaps the most remarkable part of this milestone is the degree to which his identity has faded into the background over the course of the campaign. It seems to have had little negative effect on his fundraising or poll numbers; if anything, it may have helped him catch the attention of deep-pocketed donors in New York and San Francisco. And unlike his female opponents, Buttigieg has faced few questions about whether his sexuality diminishes his electability.
In interviews with dozens of voters across Iowa during Buttigieg’s final swing, not a single one brought up his sexuality until explicitly asked. When asked directly, voters said they considered it a non-issue, or even evidence of how far the country has come.
“For the gay candidate to have twice the crowd of [Elizabeth] Warren or [Bernie] Sanders or anybody else in these little rural towns, that gives me some faith in humanity,” says Scott Matter, a Buttigieg precinct captain and a former Republican. ”I get choked up just thinking about it. It says something really good about Iowa. They see who this guy is at his core.”
In an interview with TIME on Saturday, Buttigieg reflected on how being gay has affected his campaign message. “Our message about belonging is designed to make everyone feel welcome, and my own search for belonging of course partly has to do with being different because I’m gay,” he said. “But it’s also part of what motivates me to help make sure anybody who’s been made to feel on the outside knows that they have a home in this campaign.”
Buttigieg’s sexuality appears to have shaped his personality and presentation in ways that explain both his formidable strengths as a candidate and his weaknesses. He is unusually controlled and disciplined. To supporters, this reads as reassuring, presidential. To skeptics, it reads as contrived, robotic.
Buttigieg was in his 30s when he came out publicly by writing an op-ed. By then he had amassed a glittering resume—Harvard, Oxford, McKinsey, Mayor the Navy—but no intimate personal life. That may not be a coincidence.
“Externally, he had to be the best, prove himself, and strive and get the top mark. Internally, I could see how that’s tough,” says one friend who has known him since high school. “There’s two sides: you go home and it’s probably a little painful and lonely, and then when you go outside the best way to measure success or happiness or pleasure or fun is just by doing the best job you can. And that’s kind of how he’s gotten to this point.”
Buttigieg himself has acknowledged this. “You feel a different level of pressure to be the most, the best, the strongest, especially if there’s something gnawing at you that makes you think there’s something about you that’s wrong or off,” Buttigieg told comedian Jon Lovett on his podcast, Lovett or Leave It, adding that he had “a little more bandwidth because dating wasn’t available for me.”
“You just find places for your energy. You could even argue you find places for your love to go if it’s not going into a relationship,” he said. “There’s no question that so many gay people feel that pressure and it propels us in different ways.”
In 1973, writer Andrew Tobias first popularized the idea of the “best little boy in the world,” which suggests that closeted young men often become overachievers in order to deflect attention from their sexuality. In 2013, this theory was substantiated in a study that found that closeted young men were more likely to derive their self-worth from external achievements— and that the longer they stayed in the closet, the more they accomplished.
Being in the closet didn’t just propel Buttigieg towards achievement. It also defined his personality, giving him a discipline and self-control that few politicians his age have mastered.
It doesn’t always go over well. He’s been called an “ambitious apple-polisher” and a “build-a-Bear for middling Democrats.” He was mocked in The Onion for “speaking to manufacturing robots in fluent binary.” He seems to have trouble relating to angry young protesters.
But critics who accuse him of contorting himself in a cynical bid to run for President are missing the point: He has always been like this. In interviews with dozens of people who have known Buttigieg throughout his life— family friends, middle-school classmates, high-school teachers, college roommates, disgruntled South Bend residents—they all say the same thing: the 38-year old Pete that voters see on the trail is the same Pete they knew when he was 30 or 13.
Personality is the product of countless factors, from geography (there’s that Midwestern niceness) to education and privilege (he’s a white man raised in an upper middle class family) to family dynamics (as an only child of two professors, he’s bookish and conflict-averse) to parenting (Buttigieg’s mother has a similarly calm and collected demeanor.)
But the intensity of his self-possession is obvious to anyone who has ever met Buttigieg: the absolute self-control, the infrequency of gaffes, the unwillingness to let the mask slip, even among his closest and most intimate friends. That’s because it’s not a mask. Or if it is, it’s one that he put on so long ago he doesn’t know how to take it off.
“He’s someone who’s grappled with what it’s like to be gay in this liminal space between acceptance and a lack of acceptance, and I think you see that in his story,” Lovett said in an interview, reflecting on their earlier conversation. “I think that’s something that a lot of young gay people have been through: this desire to prove that you aren’t defined by it, while also going through that long and difficult process of not just viewing it as something you have to deal it but viewing it as a positive, important aspect of yourself that allows you to have insight into what it’s like to be marginalized in some way.”
Buttigieg’s sexuality—and the years of struggle and isolation that came with it—have informed his central argument about difference and belonging, allowing him to position himself as the candidate of inclusion for anybody who feels excluded from the Democratic party. Nationwide, that argument could fall flat in the face of his dismal polling with voters of color, who are core to the Democratic base. But in Iowa, the Buttigieg campaign has calculated that his welcoming message of growth and acceptance could appeal to what he calls “future former Republicans,” who feel at once alienated by Trump but excluded from an increasingly vengeful Democratic party. People who are sick of feeling bad, and just want to feel good again. People who want forgiveness.
“I think the pendulum has swung on that issue even more than we all understand,” says Matter, the Buttigieg precinct captain. “And it’s happened so fast that it’s almost jarring.