The Midwest city mayor whose name no one could pronounce at the start of this year has come a long way in the Democratic primary.
For a rising star in the party, vastly over-performing expectations in a crowded presidential field would easily be considered a victory in its own way. But there’s real reason to think Pete Buttigieg could yet win this nomination outright.
One such rather plausible scenario is starting to develop right before our eyes. It starts, as these things so often do, in Iowa.
Two polls this past week had good news for Buttigieg in the lead-off caucus state.
A Suffolk University and USA Today poll had the Mayor in third place at 13%. More importantly, he was just five points off Joe Biden’s first-place lead of 18% (there were a lot of undecideds in this survey — 29%) and four behind Elizabeth Warren’s 17%. Bernie Sanders had fallen back to fourth at 9%.
Even better for Buttigieg, an ISU/Civiqs poll put him in second, with 20% saying he was their first choice for the caucus. In this survey, Buttigieg trailed Warren, who was at 28%. Sanders had 18% and Biden was at 12%.
The latter poll isn’t one that usually breaks big news in Iowa politics, but it’s always noteworthy when multiple polls, regardless of their stature, point to the same thing in the same week. And that’s what anyone on the ground can see clearly here: Buttigieg has a ton of energy and enthusiasm on his side in Iowa. And now is just about the time you want to get hot as we enter the final 100-day stretch.
However, winning or over-performing in Iowa is no sure bet to propel you to the nomination outright, especially in this year’s crowded and unpredictable field.
And so that’s where the other piece of the puzzle comes in from the campaign finance reports released earlier this month. In those, Buttigieg, Warren and Sanders were the top three in cash on hand, all over $20 million (Buttigieg $23.3 million, Warren $25.7 million, Sanders $33.7 million). Biden, meanwhile, was at a surprising $8.9 million cash on hand.
Let’s assume for a moment that these are the four who end up in main contention for the nomination after the first four early states. Yes, that’s obviously a very big assumption, as Kamala Harris could bounce back, Amy Klobuchar or Cory Booker could surprise in Iowa, or many other scenarios could play out, but just stick with me for a moment.
The top three in fundraising have the money to compete for a while regardless of how the early states turn out. Biden has the name and voter loyalty to stick it out even if he underperforms in the early states.
But what happens down the stretch, as we move into and past Super Tuesday?
Here’s the scenario that benefits Buttigieg:
- A first or second-place finish for Buttigieg in Iowa that catapults him into top-three showings in the next three early states.
- A disappointing finish for Biden in both Iowa and New Hampshire (behind Buttigieg in both cases), and not a convincing-enough win in South Carolina.
- No embarrassing results for either Warren or Sanders.
- No one else outside the top four emerges from the early states. Buttigieg is the sole, surging candidate.
Earlier this year, I thought that the Iowa Caucus would basically decide which candidate emerges as the main opponent to Biden for the duration of the long primary schedule. Now, it seems more likely that it will decide who is Warren’s biggest competitor. It’s possible that becomes Buttigieg.
That’s now where each candidate’s staying power becomes a determining factor. If Biden’s fundraising continues to lag, any new super PACs fail to bolster him, then the former vice president finds himself in a precarious place heading into Super Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Warren and Sanders could have their ups and downs in the early states, but both would enter Super Tuesday with loyal bases and lots of money.
And here’s the big question: who of the top four would face the most pressure to drop out first in this scenario?
Let’s assume Warren and Buttigieg end up in the strongest position after the first four states, but neither is in a place to close the deal. Sanders continues to eat into Warren’s progressive base, while Buttigieg presents himself (as he is currently) as the more-moderate alternative to Biden.
Last time, Sanders took his campaign all the way to the convention. That may not happen again if it’s clear he’s only playing spoiler to Warren at some point, but he has the resources and voter base to stick around longer than anyone. Biden, on the other hand, could run out of money if he struggles for an extended period of time.
Then you have a situation where Warren and Sanders are dividing the progressive vote, while Buttigieg has the moderate vote and other blocs all to himself. That’s a nice place for Buttigieg to be in as the primary stretches out into April and May.
Of course, there are many problems with the plausibility of this scenario, including:
- Biden voters wouldn’t automatically shift to Buttigieg. Voters don’t vote on ideology alone. Many of Biden’s support is more about trust. And the difference in experience between the two is obviously drastic.
- Warren’s campaign is targeting a broad cross-section of the party, so she’s not going to be limited to progressive voters only.
- If it goes to convention, all bets are off.
- Lots of other things.
The biggest wild card in all of this is the black vote, often the biggest factor in who becomes the nominee. Biden leads here, while it’s Buttigieg’s biggest vulnerability. Both Warren and Sanders appear to be making in-roads.
But let’s look at the primary calendar. By the end of March 10, one week after Super Tuesday, the following southern states will have voted: South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Mississippi (Missouri too if you count that). Georgia goes by itself on March 24.
If Biden is weakened overall, but manages to stay in through the end of March and his advantage among black voters holds (all a lot of “ifs”), he could forestall any other candidate’s ability to consolidate the black vote and rack up delegates there.
Anyway, this is all being written exactly 100 days out from the Iowa Caucus and could look very foolish after February 3. But given the recent polling, fundraising numbers and what we’re seeing on the ground, you can see where this is one very real potential scenario (out of many) that could lead Buttigieg to the nomination, something most would have dismissed just a few months ago.
Yes, there’s a lot of undecided Iowa caucus-goers, immense fluidity in the race and huge unknowns with so many candidates. But I think I wouldn’t mind being in Pete Buttigieg’s shoes right now.
by Pat Rynard