Pete Buttigieg talks with WHYY News about presidential election as Pa. polling leans in favor of Trump

With the presidential election just six months away, WHYY News’ Carmen Russell-Sluchansky discussed Biden-Harris campaign strategy with Buttigieg.

Listen 7:36
Pete Buttigieg

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex, May 8, 2023, in Washington. Buttigieg says Tesla shouldn’t be calling a partially automated driving system Autopilot because the cars can’t drive themselves. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

What questions do you have about the 2024 elections? What major issues do you want candidates to address? Let us know.

Pennsylvania continues to attract attention from presidential candidates as they vie for the Keystone State’s 19 electoral votes. With former President Donald Trump challenging current President Joe Biden, the race is anything but normal. The two campaigns have decided on a time and place to debate next month, making it the earliest general election debate of the TV age.

With the race in full gear, WHYY News’ political reporter Carmen Russell-Sluchansky talked to Biden-Harris surrogate Pete Buttigieg about the campaign’s strategy.

Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Carmen Russell-Sluchansky: Mr. Buttigieg, I want to first thank you for taking time away from your official duties to discuss the election that is now just six months away.

Pete Buttigieg: Thank you for having me on.

Russell-Sluchansky: Of course. So we both know that Pennsylvania is extremely important in this race, and polling here is giving Donald Trump an advantage even if only by a few percentage points. The president has had more than three years now to demonstrate that he should be given a second term. Why do you think Keystone voters don’t seem so keen to do that at this point?

Buttigieg: Well, it’s not unusual in the first half of your fourth year to still need to do some work to earn votes and earn re-election, partly because the president has been very focused on governing but is also now focusing on campaigning. I think what’s going to carry the day here is results, and also a dramatic difference between where President Biden plans to take the country and where President Trump would. And I think that difference is made most clear, actually, not in the promises that President Trump broke, of which there are many, but in the promises that he kept, like eliminating the right to choose and cutting taxes for the wealthy.

So there’s a clear contrast. We’re going to be hammering that contrast over the next six months, and I believe that’s part of what it will take for President Biden to win Pennsylvania, again.

Russell-Sluchansky: One of the issues that the Biden-Harris campaign has focused on in terms of trying to distinguish between the two candidacies is, of course, health care. Can you get into a little bit about that? Where are those stark differences?

Buttigieg: Well, like I said, President Trump broke some of his promises, but he kept others. He kept his promise to end the right to choose. He kept his promise to cut taxes for the wealthy, and I think there’s a chance he would keep his promise to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. That would have devastating effects on millions of Americans. So many people would lose their coverage. Young people would lose their ability to stay on their parent’s coverage; insurance rates could skyrocket.

Also, remember, President Biden delivered on his promise of cutting the cost of insulin down to $35 a month for seniors. He would’ve done it for every American if Republicans hadn’t blocked him. That’s one example of what is possible if we have a successful re-election where President Biden is returned to office, and Democrats who believe in cutting health care costs like [Senator] Bob Casey returned to office as well. The contrast could not be clearer. President Biden faced down big pharma and won. President Trump will side with big pharma, and again, this is one of the reasons why we beat Donald Trump in Pennsylvania last time and part of why I think we’re going to do it this time.

Russell-Sluchansky: I know you’re not an economist, but I would like to talk about the Pennsylvania economy. When Donald Trump was in Pennsylvania recently, I spoke with several locals who attended his rally. Many of them pointed to, what they call, a tough economy here. Here’s Laurie, a professional house cleaner from Ben Salem:

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Laurie: “Groceries are up. What you would’ve spent for $40 three years ago is now costing you a hundred dollars. So you go grocery shopping every week, you’re spending $200 a week just to feed your family.”

Russell-Sluchansky: Inflation has come down since the pandemic when it saw historic numbers, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics still puts it higher than pre-pandemic times, which really cuts into the increased wages that the campaign has talked about. So what is the message for voters like Laurie?

Buttigieg: I think the message for voters like Lori, again, is to look at the difference between what we are proposing to do about it and what Donald Trump wants to do about it, right? Joe Biden has been laser-focused on cutting costs. Yes, we faced price increases, by the way, the entire world has, as a result of COVID inflation is coming down, but it’s still something that so many Americans are feeling.

It’s why Joe Biden was so focused on things like cutting the cost of insulin, getting rid of junk fees on credit cards and other expenses that Americans face. It’s why he’s confronting corporations that have been taking advantage of people, and it just couldn’t be more different than the anti-union, pro-corporation approach that Donald Trump took cutting taxes for the wealthy, opposing unions, opposing increases to the minimum wage that would actually make a difference when it comes to the everyday cost of living for Americans.

Russell-Sluchansky: Despite all this, the most recent poll looking at Pennsylvania, this one from the New York Times, puts President [Biden] well underwater in terms of favorability, with 50% not happy with the president. Another poll showed that only 17% of voters were happy with the choices they were given between the two. My conversations here with Democrats really support those numbers. For example, I talked with Diane from Allentown, who said she plans to vote for the president but is really voting against the former president, as you were saying. Here’s what she said about Joe Biden.

Diane: “I think he means well, I think he’s trying his best. I think he’s up against a lot. Age is a factor as far as the next election is concerned, but again, compared to the alternative, he’s our best choice, in my opinion.”

Russell-Sluchansky: Now, this really kind of jives with what you’re saying when a lot of Democrats I talk to talk about this election, they’re talking about voting against Donald Trump. What are your internal polls saying about the success of really pumping up that as a campaign strategy?

Buttigieg: This is not just about what we’re up against, but what we’re for, and we talk a lot about both.

When you have two people who have both been president, running for president against each other, you don’t have the kind of things that go on when there’s a brand-new face on the ballot. But you do have something that I actually think is an advantage for voters, which is exactly what you are comparing. You are comparing Joe Biden who, as Diane mentioned, is a good person who is doing everything that he can to make everyday life easier in America. Then you have someone like President Trump who is more focused on his own past and on revenge and retribution, whose presidency was marked by chaos, by inferior economic results compared to the current presidency, not to mention a violent attack on the United States Capitol.

You don’t have to wonder what you’re going to get. Again, I would focus not just on the promises that President Trump broke versus the promises that President Biden kept, like infrastructure, climate action, job creation and more, but the promises that Donald Trump kept taking away, [like] the right to choose. And if he kept that promise to take away rights in America, I think he would take away more rights in America given the chance.

Russell-Sluchansky: All right. So much to talk about, but we have to leave it there. Thank you so much for your time, Mr. Buttigieg.

Buttigieg: Thank you again for having me.

Get the WHYY app!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal