Could 'Wine Cave' Haunt Pete Buttigieg's Campaign the Way 'Car Elevator' Did Mitt Romney's?

At Thursday night's Democratic presidential debate in Los Angeles, Senator Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg tried to money-shame each other.

Warren said that "billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States," a reference to Buttigieg's recent appearance at an exclusive fundraiser in a wine cellar in Napa Valley. Warren had previously pledged to skip big-dollar fundraisers if she is her party's nominee.

"The mayor just recently had a fund-raiser that was held in a wine cave, full of crystals and served $900-a-bottle wine," said Warren. "Think about who comes to that. He had promised that every fund-raiser he would do would be open-door, but this one was closed-door. We made the decision many years ago that rich people in smoke-filled rooms would not pick the next president of the United States. Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States."

In response, Buttigieg said that Warren's net worth was "one hundred times" his, and that he was "literally the only person on this stage who is not a millionaire or a billionaire." He said to Warren: "Senator, your presidential campaign right now as we speak is funded in part by money you transferred, having raised it at those exact same big-ticket fund-raisers you now denounce. Did it corrupt you, Senator? Of course not."

The exchange was a debate highlight and #winecave went viral on Twitter. Now Buttigieg risks being dismissed as a clubby guy who caters to big donors and is out of touch with the average American. He wouldn't be the first presidential contender who found himself unable to shake that image.

2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney planned a renovation for his beach home in La Jolla, California, that included a "car elevator," a platform that would carry his automobiles between floors. It wasn't news that Romney was a wealthy man. But "car elevator" was an irresistible shorthand for anyone out to portray the GOP candidate as ridiculously rich—a gift to the Obama campaign.

Eight years earlier, President George W. Bush's re-election campaign unveiled an ad featuring Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry windsurfing off the coast of Martha's Vineyard. The voice-over said: "John Kerry...whichever way the wind blows"—a reference to the then-senator as a political flip-flopper. The windsurfing photo, meanwhile, reinforced detractors' view of him as an "out-of-touch, elitist Massachusetts liberal," said The New York Times. Kerry lost to the incumbent Bush in 2004.

Then there was President George H.W. Bush, who appeared "amazed" at a National Grocers Association convention in 1992 over the modern marvels of grocery store scanning technology. "This is for checking out?" the elder Bush asked. At a time when many Americans were facing economic insecurity, the president's apparent unfamiliarity with middle-class life was fatal. The Associated Press reported that it wasn't actually an ordinary grocery scanner but a unique one that could weigh produce and scan torn barcodes, and Bush may have been merely displaying polite interest. But the impression stuck. He lost to Bill Clinton, a politician gifted at conveying that he felt voters' pain.

It's too early to tell whether "wine cave" will slow Buttiegieg's momentum. A recent Iowa State University/Civiqs poll revealed Buttigieg as the front-runner in Iowa with 24 percent, followed by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren at 21 percent and 18 percent respectively; that survey was conducted from December 12 to 16. Meanwhile, a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that Buttigieg trailing behind in fourth place among Democratic primary voters. Buttigieg—and his opponents—will look closely at what post-hashtag polls will say.

Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 19: South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) listens during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Loyola Marymount University on December 19, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Seven candidates out of the crowded field qualified for the 6th and last Democratic presidential primary debate of 2019 hosted by PBS NewsHour and Politico. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/Getty