Nick Greenwood examines Pete Buttigieg’s recent poll victory in Iowa and assesses the challenges that the presidential hopeful may encounter.
By all conventional measures, Pete Buttigieg should not be a major contender for President of the United States. He’s the outgoing mayor of South Bend, Indiana, the fourth-largest city of the seventeenth-largest state, known nationwide only for an aborted 2017 run for the Democratic Party chairmanship. And yet he’s doing rather well.
The last nationwide poll recognised by the Democratic National Committee had him on 9%, far behind Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders, all of whom poll at or above the 20% mark. You’d be forgiven for thinking Team Buttigieg is struggling. Luckily for them, the Democratic nomination process starts with the Iowa caucuses in February, and it is there that Buttigieg’s campaign is on the up.
Buttigieg has been the beneficiary of a gradual rise in Iowa polls
Throughout November, Buttigieg has been the beneficiary of a gradual rise in Iowa polls. As polling guru Nate Silver remarked, his excellent performances are coming off the back of a reputation established as “a nice Midwestern boy who’s spent a lot of time and money there”, as well as national clout for being the first major gay candidate in American political history. The Buttigieg campaign had polled relatively well there earlier in the year, hitting a high mark of 17% in June before falling back, but the new “Butti-bump” is something else entirely. Buttigieg has established a clear, if narrow, lead in Iowa, and looks to be rising fast in the next contest, New Hampshire, as well.
On average, Buttigieg leads the field in Iowa with nearly 23%, ahead of the other three frontrunners, with Warren on 19%, and both Sanders and Biden on 17%. A recent Saint Anselm College poll also gave him a solid 10-point lead in New Hampshire, although he trails in other recent polls. Are we looking at the man to face down Donald Trump in a year’s time?
Unfortunately, that’s about as informed an answer as you’re liable to get. If you were another candidate, you’d be envious of Buttigieg’s early state strength. However, we’re left again with the nationwide picture: in the same period as his Iowa surge, his national poll numbers have remained stagnant, and he polls poorly in subsequent contests. Much has also been made of Buttigieg’s lack of appeal to African American voters; despite a plank of his campaign advocating a ‘Douglass Plan’ for dismantling institutional discrimination, Quinnipiac recently found that his support among South Carolinian African Africans was literally 0%.
Much has also been made of Buttigieg’s lack of appeal to African American voters
As congresswoman Marcia Fudge remarked recently, “Pete has a black problem.” As mayor in 2012, he sacked South Bend’s only African American police chief amidst a scandal about racism in the city’s police force. African Americans in the city he’s run for eight years have an unemployment rate almost double that of white citizens and, embarrassingly, his campaign’s claim to show four hundred black supporters of his ‘Douglass plan’ did not hold up. Half of these alleged supporters were white, and some of those who weren’t didn’t back the plan. Polling analysis indicates Buttigieg’s support is rooted in younger, university-educated whites, which alone is not nearly enough to carry him forwards. It might win him Iowa, and maybe even New Hampshire, dominated as they are by white voters unrepresentative of the wider Democratic electorate.
It’s here, though, that Buttigieg’s fortune in the early states might turn things around. There’s a common, if pejorative, saying about the first two contests, that “Iowa picks corn – New Hampshire picks presidents.” A winner of both should clearly be well on their way to the nomination.
Let’s assume for a second that his poll ratings hold, or increase, and Buttigieg triumphs in both Iowa and New Hampshire. In the aftermath, the Buttigieg campaign would get what it currently lacks: nationwide media attention to the extent that his victories cut through to “ordinary” voters. You would have to assume that his poor ratings nationwide, and in the subsequent states, would skyrocket: he’s a pretty solid fourth place contender at the moment, and victories in Iowa and New Hampshire would undoubtedly make him the frontrunner.
The polls don’t always hold up.
As the last five years have proved, the polls don’t always hold up. Biden, for instance, has the support of around 41% of African American voters. One only wonders whether this support would hold up if Biden’s campaign began to implode; given the Buttigieg campaign’s recent tack to the centre-ground, this might indeed be the strategy. Unable to win over the progressive voters divided between Warren and Sanders, knocking Biden out of the race would theoretically give Buttigieg a lock over the rest of the party’s electorate, and pit him against whichever of the progressive firebrands come out on top.
There are certainly a lot of ‘ifs’ in the strategy that gets Pete Buttigieg to the White House. He’s got to hold the line in Iowa, and make up ground in New Hampshire. He’s got to build a multiracial coalition. In what’s probably his only viable strategy, he’s got to drive Joe Biden out of the race and cannibalise his support. He’s got to use that support to beat the swelling progressive tide within the Democratic Party. He has to hope that the American electorate are accepting of both his age (he would be the youngest president in history at 39) and his sexuality.
And then, finally, Buttigieg has to beat Donald Trump.