Mayor Pete’s Media-Made Moment

How the media’s desperate race to rank for trending keywords on Google influences media coverage and contributed to the meteoric rise of Pete Buttigieg.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg- February 16, 2019 (Marcn/Flickr)

Mayor Pete Buttigieg- February 16, 2019 (Marcn/Flickr)

Pete Buttigieg is having a moment, Buttigieg becomes first winner in fundraising primary, Why You Love Mayor Pete, Interest In Pete Buttigieg is exploding.

You may have seen a few of these headlines this past week, each with an accompanying story that told of South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s meteoric rise. As the first openly gay man to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination whose military career would be the most extensive of anyone elected president since George H.W. Bush, 37-year-old Buttigieg’s story is worthy of recognition.

Mayor Pete, the now preferred nomenclature for this small-town politician, garnered national attention on March 10 while participating in a CNN town hall at the SXSW festival. Since then, he has raised more than $7 million from more than 100,000 donors, become the second most engaged with candidate on social media, and surged multiple percentage points in the polls. Mayor Pete’s positive trajectory is unquestionable – he is having a moment. But is this moment one of his own making? Or are there unseen forces at play tipping the scales in his favor.

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Now before I go any further, I’d like to make it clear that this article is not a hit piece on Mayor Pete. Nor is it meant to belittle his achievements. What Pete Buttigieg has been able to accomplish through a sheer cult of personality has been a spectacle to watch. It is, however, an article meant to highlight the favoritism that is awarded to some, constant skepticism levied on others, and the artificial version of reality that’s being projected onto the rest of us.

Let’s begin with the favoritism. On Monday, it was announced that Mayor Pete raised an impressive $7 million while still in the exploratory phase of his 2020 campaign. Unsurprisingly, this was met with stellar coverage from the press with headlines such as: Why Pete Buttigieg’s $7 million cash haul is even more impressive than it seems (CNN) and ‘He’s disrupting the entire 2020 race’: Buttigieg’s $7M haul puts Dems on notice (Politico).

At first glance, this dollar figure appears to be monumental. Partially because I and at least 99% of the people reading this can’t imagine raising this amount of money for ourselves. However, once you dig deeper and realize that most of the other potential 2020 nominees haven’t even announced their Q1 fundraising numbers yet, or that in relation to the numbers that some of the other candidates put up within their first 24 hours that $7 million isn’t all that impressive, one begins to wonder why Mayor Pete’s numbers were worthy of such stellar coverage by our media.

On Monday, April 1st (the same day Pete Buttigieg tweeted out his fundraising numbers) Kamala Harris’ campaign announced her Q1 fundraising numbers totaling $12 million from 218,000 individual contributions (PAC-free). Yet her announcement was met with significantly less fanfare from our media. For consistencies sake, here are the two headlines attributed to Harris’ after her campaign released her fundraising numbers from the same outlets mentioned above – Kamala Harris pulled in $12 million for presidential bid, campaign says (CNN) and Harris raises $12 million in 1st quarter of campaign (Politico).

Now math has never been my strong suit, and correct me if I’m wrong, but is $12 million not a greater dollar figure than $7 million? Is there a reason why one candidate’s fundraising numbers were met with astonishment and the other was met with purely objective coverage? Where’s Chris Cillizza’s 7-minute youtube video dedicated to Harris? A relative-unknown coming out of left field who goes on to beat out the pre-destined does make for a better story, so perhaps the favorable coverage all boils down to our media not being able to resist openly rooting for their anointed underdog – their favorite.

But the imbalance in coverage doesn’t stop there. A phenomenon that made itself openly known in 2016, and is now again beginning to blossom just in time for spring, is the inherent derangement journalists seem to have for particular candidates. And if we’re going to call a spade a spade, the reasoning behind this derangement seems to be in no small part due to the fact that these particular candidates are women.

Because the story of inherent misogyny in media is one that requires and deserves both proper nuance and an inclusive discussion, I won’t attempt to distill that topic into a few paragraphs here. I will, however, provide you with a simple example that highlights its prevalence in relation to our media’s current wunderkind.

Here is a story that was recently published by The Washington Post titled Why hasn’t Elizabeth Warren achieved liftoff?. In this article, the writer goes on to detail the many obstacles Warren is facing, such as her polling numbers and lack of recent television coverage, despite the fact that “2020 should be her moment.” The writer also makes sure to note that the policy positions of women candidates are deemphasized in favor of their fashion and marital status by the media, if not only in the context of it being problematic for Warren’s strategy. So what exactly is wrong with this article and how does it tie back to the coverage of Mayor Pete? The framing.

In 2020, the inherent bias against women candidates won’t be overt like it was in 2016. We’re in the midst of a cultural moment built on finally giving women everywhere the societal respect they’ve deserved since the beginning of time. Which means that hopefully, stories meant to “raise questions” like those over Hillary Clinton’s health are a thing of the past. So again, what exactly is wrong with an article that makes a point to highlight that women face unfair coverage? The entire thesis of the article is rooted in pessimism. Negative coverage is a form of bias that women face, if even only being conveyed tonally. Here is how this same author covered Pete Buttigieg: Pete Buttigieg could become the first gay president. Americans are ready for one. See the difference? It’s up to us as readers to take tonal framing into consideration when comparing coverage of candidates.

However, neither favoritism nor inherent bias truly answers the real question here which is why Mayor Pete and why now? Why aren’t news publications rolling out the red carpet for Beto O’Rourke or Cory Booker or John Hickenlooper? What is it about Pete Buttigieg that has supposedly captured our heads and our hearts? How did #Buttigieg2020 become our new reality? To answer that, we’ll have to examine the fundamental flaw at the heart of our media’s business model.

If you were to ask someone who specializes in search engine optimization (SEO) what the most important aspect of driving traffic to a site is they would reply with one word – keywords. Simply put, keywords are the end-all-be-all when it comes to building an audience on the web. The more keywords you rank for, the easier it is for potential readers to discover you on search engines. The easier it is for people to discover you on search engines the likelier they are to click your link. And finally, the likelier people are to click your link, the better chances you’ll have that some of them click an ad on your site that makes you money. Right now, Pete Buttigieg is THE keyword for news publications to be ranking for.

According to Google Trends, the term “Pete Buttigieg” has reached peak popularity. As you can see, he’s maxed out the Google Trends’ X-axis of interest. If you’re a publication whose business model is built on ad dollars then the word ‘Pete Buttigieg’ might as well be a gold mine. Doing a baseline search of his name using Moz’s keyword explorer reveals that just the term ‘Pete Buttigieg’ gets anywhere from 70.8k-118k searches per month. Yesterday, it was between 30.3k-70.8k.

So now that we’ve established that Mayor Pete is a gold mine to ad-supported business, which most online publications are, does it come as any surprise to you as to why you’re seeing his name pop up so frequently? This will continue until his keyword, excuse me, “name” loses its monthly search volume. And that will only happen after the media has completely tapped this vein for all it’s worth. In other words, they have a profit incentive for Buttigieg to continue having a “moment” because the longer he stays relevant the easier it is for them to make money. But mark my words, the day he ceases to draw clicks will be the day he fades from the conversation just as quickly as he emerged.

For now, Pete Buttigieg is having a moment. But how much of that moment is of his own making?

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Opinion // 2020 / Journalism / Media / Pete Buttigieg / SEO