Then in 2010, Donnelly, a Blue Dog Democrat in a red district who voted for Obamacare, faced the prospect of losing reelection. But Donnelly picked Schmuhl, who had never worked on any campaign before, to manage his race because, Donnelly said, he “doesn’t worry about who gets the credit, just the getting it done.” Joel Elliott, Donnelly’s former chief of staff, assigned it to Schmuhl’s “preternaturally calm” disposition.
Donnelly scraped together a narrow 2010 victory. Buttigieg, who ran for Indiana state treasurer, got crushed in the general election. But Buttigieg and Schmuhl kept running into each other on the trail, and in the “aftermath of both races, we started talking about what’s next,” Schmuhl said.
What happened next runs parallel in some ways to the 2020 presidential primary, said Dan Parker, the former Indiana Democratic Party chairman. Buttigieg, then 29 years old, cut through a crowded primary of familiar party leaders to become mayor of South Bend, running an upstart campaign based on the themes of economic revitalization and generational change. And Schmuhl managed it.
“The more I think about it, the more the 2011 primary race for mayor mirrors the kind of campaign they’re running for president right now — a newcomer with an optimistic tone,” Parker said.
Schmuhl became Buttigieg’s chief of staff and did a brief stint as the district Democratic Party chairman, but he left after one and a half years to go to graduate school in Paris. His going-away gift from Buttigieg was a “Hand of the King” pin from “Game of Thrones,” which now sits on Schmuhl’s desk in South Bend. “I don’t exactly wear it around,” Schmuhl said, flashing the badge, a symbol of the second-in-command in the show.
One day while Schmuhl was in France, over Skype, Buttigieg dropped the news that he was gay. Thinking back on it, Schmuhl, one of the first people Buttigieg told, said he wasn’t “crazy surprised.” He’d always just assumed Buttigieg “didn’t really have time to date or anything — I thought about it that way.” The conversation turned quickly to how Buttigieg would make his sexual orientation public in Indiana.
Schmuhl observed that when Buttigieg drops big news on him, it usually starts out casually.
“‘Hey man, I’m thinking of running for mayor. Hey man, I’m going to Afghanistan. Hey man, I’m gay. Hey man, I want to be DNC chairman. Hey man, I think I might run for president,’” Schmuhl said.
“The guy knows how to keep you on edge.”
Building a long-shot campaign
By the fall of 2018, after a few years at the Democratic consulting firm 270 Strategies, Schmuhl returned to South Bend again, this time to lay groundwork for Buttigieg’s presidential campaign alongside Lis Smith, who started serving as a senior adviser to Buttigieg when he ran for Democratic National Committee chairman in 2017.
Smith — a fierce, New York-based Democratic operative — admitted that she “didn’t know exactly what to make of [Schmuhl] when we first met because our styles are so different and he likes to sit back and observe,” she said, describing her and Schmuhl as a yin-yang force. “We probably had tense moments, but I can count them on two fingers.”
“It’s a little off-cast for people who would traditionally run presidential campaigns,” said Jeremy Bird, who served as the Obama reelection campaign’s national field director and hired Schmuhl to work at 270 Strategies, his consulting firm, in 2015. “In a political world where people are often focused on chest bumping, hyperbole and being louder to be heard, Schmuhl is not that. He listens.”
Schmuhl and Smith hashed out Buttigieg’s strategy over beers at the Rusty Knot, a West Village bar, and over board games in Buttigieg’s living room in South Bend. “It was hardly a cast of thousands around a big conference room table,” Smith said, calling the early days of the Buttigieg campaign “a pipe dream and a bit fantastical.”
But Buttigieg soon outgrew the small beginnings of his campaign. Sitting in the green room backstage after a mid-March CNN town hall, a producer approached Schmuhl with an iPad and said, “I want you to look at something.” The screen showed online engagement during the three-hour broadcast, which featured Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, former Rep. John Delaney and Buttigieg.
“It’s two hours of a completely flat line, and the final 45 minutes, it’s just this —” Schmuhl swept his hand steeply upward. “That was the first kind of inkling something was up.”
While Buttigieg’s fundraising and his attention from voters and the media rose rapidly in the spring, the campaign’s infrastructure was slower to grow in the early states. “It still didn’t seem real then,” said Grant Woodard, a longtime Democratic operative in Iowa, describing some “staff types who thumbed their nose at Buttigieg’s campaign” as it was trying to expand.
A lot of that fell on Schmuhl’s plate, as he sought to build on-the-ground infrastructure and a senior leadership team. “When you throw 450 people into a project in a tight amount of time, it’s a lot of people, it’s a lot of personalities,” said Schmuhl, who admitted to only getting “hot” three times during the presidential race, though he declined to explain further. “There’s going to be quirks.”
Over the summer, when the mayor began to sink in national polling after his early splash, Buttigieg’s top staffers were at odds over coordination between the campaign’s two main offices in South Bend and Chicago. The group was “intractably split over what to do,” said one senior Buttigieg official. “But we were not working well not being in the same place.”
Schmuhl took in the arguments and made the decision: Everything would be in South Bend. Staffers moved soon after.
Buttigieg staffers said Schmuhl is tasked with the hard conversations, often “riding in the car alone with Pete before big events, before debates,” Smith said. “If there’s something that Pete needs to hear, and just one person alone, Mike’s the designated person.”
As Buttigieg faces more heat and pressure, there will be more of those moments. At last week’s Democratic debate, Amy Klobuchar skewered Buttigieg’s experience, questioning whether a candidate who couldn’t win his state could lead the Democratic ticket against President Donald Trump.
But Schmuhl is aware that anytime someone questions Buttigieg’s experience, the same question applies to him: In the most consequential Democratic primary in recent history, was he prepared to handle the job?
For all the times he’s heard the question, asked or implied, he still struggles with an answer.
“I think that Pete is —” Schmuhl said, breaking off and tearing up over ramen at the Crooked Ewe, a brewery on the banks of the St. Joseph River.
“Pete is somebody who makes people around him better,” Schmuhl went on. “He’s the kind of MVP who makes the whole team better. He makes me better.”
“I’ve completely realized that I’m not a traditional campaign manager, and I think the things I’ve done in my life and how well I know Pete, I think we’re a good team and we’re a good package,” Schmuhl continued.
Still, when asked for a moment when he and Buttigieg disagreed — a moment when a friend who also happens to be your campaign manager could deliver a much-needed hard truth — Schmuhl blew out his cheeks and thought for 30 seconds. He declined to share those thoughts.
“I don’t know,” Schmuhl said.
Buttigieg, for his part, reached into a past campaign and described a moment in his 2011 mayoral race when his friend sat him down and asked, “I need to know if you want to win this.” Skimping on additional details or conflict, Buttigieg said he and Schmuhl “needed to sharpen a lot of things in the campaign, and we did.”
“And we won.”