Pete Buttigieg has spent roughly $300,000 on private jet travel this year, more than any other Democrat running for the White House, according to an analysis of campaign finance data.
The expenditures have enabled the South Bend mayor to keep up an aggressive schedule, shuttling from his campaign headquarters in his hometown to fundraisers and political events across the country. But his reliance on charter flights contrasts sharply with his image as a Rust Belt mayor who embodies frugality and Midwestern modesty.
That could prove to be a liability in a contest in which relatability to everyday people is often key.
“It’s a trade-off. The downside is that taking a private airplane can look very elitist,” said Dan Schnur, a University of Southern California political science professor and former press secretary for John McCain’s 2000 Republican presidential campaign. “On the other hand, it allows you to cover a lot more ground and talk to a much larger number of voters.”
Buttigieg’s campaign says the distance between its South Bend headquarters and major airports sometimes makes private jet travel necessary.
“We are careful with how we spend our money, and we fly commercial as often as possible,” Buttigieg spokesman Chris Meagher said Wednesday. “We only fly noncommercial when the schedule dictates.”
The spending could come up during the Democratic debates next week when Buttigieg shares a stage with Beto O’Rourke, who already took an apparent poke at him over the matter.
“No private planes for this campaign,” the former Texas congressman said in a video posted to social media on Monday that was filmed while O’Rourke was aboard a commercial plane waiting for takeoff. “We’re putting your $5, $10, $15 to use and making sure we make the most out of every penny that’s committed to this campaign.”
Few political observers predicted Buttigieg would be a leading contender when he entered the 2020 race this year. But he used breakout town hall performances, viral moments and his biography as a millennial, a gay military veteran and a former Rhodes scholar to catapult into the vanguard of Democratic candidates.
He led the field of Democratic candidates in fundraising during the second quarter, raking in $24.8 million.
Yet the charter flight expenses were only part of a number of large expenditures on travel and accommodation by Buttigieg in recent months.
His campaign spent about $110,000 at a Hilton hotel in downtown Miami during the first round of Democratic debates last month . Buttigieg’s campaign says the expenditures covered a large block of conference rooms and rooms for campaign staff, though records show it’s drastically more than any other top contender paid for lodging that week.
He also spent about $20,000 at other Hilton hotels, $14,000 on car and limousine services and $4,100 at the Avalon in Beverly Hills, which bills itself as a hotel that “sets the tone for hip repose.”
So far, the rate at which he is spending money is far less than most of the other candidates in the sprawling field. His campaign’s “burn rate” was about 35% of what it raised during the second quarter, records show.
When it comes to charter flight expenses, Buttigieg is followed by former Vice President Joe Biden, who spent $256,000, according to records. Biden’s campaign declined to discuss his use of charter flights in detail but said carbon offsets purchased to reduce environmental damage from combusted jet fuel contributed to the high cost.
The other top contenders spent far less.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has spent about $60,000 on private planes but regularly flies coach and often takes selfies with supporters in airports. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders spent about $18,000. And California Sen. Kamala Harris spent $17,000 on charters, records show.
“It’s never been that big of an issue for candidates in the past, except in those cases where the planes are funded by special interests,” said Schnur, the former McCain press secretary, who no longer identifies as a Republican. “But in this environment, where big-dollar fundraising is a highly sensitive issue, it could become fodder for another campaign.”