SOUTH BEND – How South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg would fare in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary in Indiana is uncertain. Voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and other states will determine before then whether he is a viable contender. But one thing is certain: Buttigieg, if still an active candidate when Hoosier Democrats vote, would run away with the primary vote in his home area.

That was demonstrated by the enthusiastic response for the mayor this week at the first book signing for “Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future.”

A capacity crowd of 800 packed the Great Hall of Century Center to hear the mayor and buy his book. They applauded long and loud when the moderator for a conversation about the book mentioned his presidential prospects.

The most significant sign of enthusiasm for Buttigieg was the willingness of those who bought the book to wait in line for up two and a half hours to have the mayor sign it.

Attendees all bought the book. They had to in order to attend. The price of admission was $30, same as the price of the book, and everybody attending was handed a copy.

Actually, sales topped attendance. Many bought additional books.

The fondness for the mayor in his home area also was shown by frequent applause as he talked of the stories in the book about South Bend and about himself.

“I hope that the book gives an understanding not just of me but of our community, of our city, of what it’s been through and of where it’s headed,” Buttigieg said. Where he sees it headed – and describes that in his appearances around the country and on national TV – is one of reasons for his local popularity. South Bend area residents like to hear the city, in the past described as dying, described now as vigorous and growing.

His popularity will be tested in the upcoming mayoral primary. Buttigieg this week endorsed James Mueller, his former chief of staff, for the Democratic nomination for mayor in a nine-candidate race.

It’s hard to transfer popularity. That’s been shown time and again. Endorsements by a popular political figure often seem to have little effect with voters.

There is some risk for Buttigieg. Not to the extent that a loss in the primary by his endorsed candidate would keep Buttigieg from carrying the area overwhelmingly if he is a viable presidential primary contender. But if the mayor’s choice loses, it would be noted in evaluations nationally.

There also is danger that backers of some of the other mayoral nomination candidates not endorsed could be less enthusiastic in support of Buttigieg.

The mayor clearly regards Mueller as the person he would like to see carry on his work in South Bend. Mueller, 36, was part of the city administration until leaving to devote full time to the mayoral campaign. He, like Buttigieg, is intellectual – has a doctorate – and is a South Bend native who came home and serves in city government.

They were in the same class at St. Joseph High School in South Bend. Mueller is no sure bet for mayor, no doubt a reason that Buttigieg decided to make the endorsement rather than just help Mueller behind the scenes, as he had been doing.

With Mueller lacking in name recognition at the start of the campaign, there was no consensus frontrunner. Former St. Joseph County Democratic Chairman Jason Critchlow appeared to be off to the best start in the mayoral nomination race in terms of early organizing. Now Mueller has enhanced name recognition, recognized as the mayor’s choice to carry on his programs.

It is certain that Buttigieg is popular in South Bend. Very popular. It will be interesting to see if the throngs who waited for up to two and a half hours for him to sign copies of his books will now sign on to the candidacy of his choice as the next mayor. 

Colwell has covered Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.