CNN —  

On Wednesday morning, Pete Buttigieg formed a 2020 exploratory committee – a near-certain precursor to a presidential bid for the Democratic nomination.

The response from the general public – and even the political class – can be summed up in a single word: “Who?”

Buttigieg is admittedly not a household name. Hell, it’s not clear – even to people who know him – how you pronounce his name. (His last name. “Pete” is pretty standard stuff.) Tweeted his husband, Chasten, last December:

“Options:

boot-edge-edge

or

Buddha-judge

or

Boot-a-judge

or

Boo-tuh-judge”

The Atlantic’s Edward Isaac-Dovere says the correct pronunciation is “BOOT-uh-judge,” that the name is Maltese and that is translates, roughly, to “lord of the poultry.”

Here’s what we DO know about Buttigieg: He’s the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. He’s 37. (He was elected mayor at 29.) He’s a veteran of the Afghanistan war. He’s a Rhodes scholar. He’s openly gay. And he’s running because he thinks that Democrats – and the country – need a generational choice and change.

“There’s a new generation of voices emerging in our country, walking away from the politics of the past and ready to deliver on our priorities,” Buttigieg says in a video announcing his exploratory committee. “There is no ‘again’ in the real world; that’s not a bad thing. We are ready for a fresh start.”

Which isn’t a bad message! Especially when the current President of the United States is 72 years old and two of the top contenders for the Democratic nomination in 2020 are 77 (Bernie Sanders) and 76 (Joe Biden).

There’s just one problem for Buttigieg: No one knows who he is, and it’s not clear that he can raise the money he needs to solve that problem.

In a CNN poll in December 2018, Buttigieg didn’t make the list of 20(!) candidates voters were asked to choose from. Ditto a Politico/Morning Consult poll of potential 2020 challengers.

It’s hard enough to go from 1% in polling to the nomination. But to go from not-even-included-in-the-poll to the nomination? TOUGH.

Which gets me to the second important one-word question: “Why?” As in, why would he run for president – and think he can win?

The answer to that is both simple and complex.

First the simple part: Buttigieg is running for president because a) he has a message he wants to push out to Democrats nationally (It’s time to put young people in charge) and b) he knows that in a field that is expected to grow to maybe as many as 24 candidates, there’s simply no way of predicting what will happen.

And he’s right. The dynamics of a huge field are impossible to accurately game out – and as the 2016 Republican presidential race proved, anything can and does happen. If you are Buttigieg, it’s at least as likely today that you wind up as the Democratic nominee in 2020 as it was, at this time in 2015, that Donald Trump is the Republican presidential nominee, much less that he actually wins the presidency.

So there’s that. Buttigieg is running because he wants to be president, thinks he has a chance and so why the hell not?

That’s the simple part. The complex part is that while Buttigieg’s ultimate goal is winning the nomination, it’s almost certainly not his only goal.

Running for president – even if you are a long shot – has a way of elevating your voice. Did anyone outside of Vermont know who Howard Dean was prior to his 2004 presidential bid? Or Mike Huckabee in 2008? How about Herman Cain in 2012? You get the idea. Running for president can turn you into a national figure even if you come up well short of being the nominee.

And then there’s the consolation prize(s) of running what people believe was a good race with a solid message: You could wind up – in the best-case scenario – on the national ticket as the vice presidential nominee or, if your side wins, in a new Democratic president’s Cabinet. Even being mentioned for jobs like that is MUCH more likely as a losing presidential candidate than it is as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

Finally, consider Buttigieg’s age – which if his announcement video is any clue, he plans to put front and center in the race. He just turned 37. Let’s say he runs a credible but unsuccessful race – dropping out after a poor showing in the Iowa caucuses next February. He quickly endorses the candidate who goes on to win the nomination. That person beats Donald Trump in 2020 and names Buttigieg to a Cabinet post. Buttigieg, when he takes that office, would still be under 40.

That’s remarkable – and totally could happen! It speaks to the fact that Buttigieg, more so than anyone else in the current field, is playing the long game here. He’s running to win, sure, but he’s also running to set himself up for his political future.

Get it? Got it? Good!