It’s usually against best practices to telegraph a punch, but Pete Buttigieg knew what he was doing when he previewed his attack against Elizabeth Warren in a digital ad bashing Medicare for All ahead of last week’s debate. The ad predictably prompted debate moderators to pit the South Bend, Ind., mayor against Senator Elizabeth Warren, the race’s front-runner. When asked at the debate, Warren refused to say that Medicare for All would require raising taxes on the middle class, and Buttigieg deftly hit her for it.
“Well, we heard it tonight: a yes-or-no question that didn’t get a yes-or-no answer. Look, this is why people here in the Midwest are so frustrated with Washington in general and Capitol Hill in particular. Your signature, senator, is to have a plan for everything. Except this,” Buttigieg said.
He then struck a populist note in attacking Warren’s plan to abolish private health insurance for all Americans: “I don’t think the American people are wrong when they say that what they want is a choice.”
It’s not clear if voters will think that the 37-year-old mayor of a small city in Indiana passes the commander-in-chief test, but Buttigieg staked out a relatively responsible position on foreign policy within the Democratic party during the debate: against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but also against President Trump’s betrayal of America’s Kurdish allies in Syria.
“The slaughter going on in Syria is not a consequence of American presence. It’s a consequence of a withdrawal and a betrayal by this president of American allies and American values,” Buttigieg said during an exchange with the staunchly non-interventionist Tulsi Gabbard. “Look, I didn’t think we should have gone to Iraq in the first place. I think we need to get out of Afghanistan. But it’s also the case that a small number of specialized, special-operations forces and intelligence capabilities were the only thing that stood between that part of Syria and what we’re seeing now, which is the beginning of a genocide and the resurgence of ISIS.”
The strong debate performance hasn’t really helped Buttigieg much in the national polls: He is still sitting at about 7 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics national average, up about 1 point since the debate. But with little more than 100 days until the Iowa caucuses, he is definitely in contention to win the crucial first contest. On Thursday morning, an Iowa State University poll showed him surging into second place with 20 percent support in Iowa, behind Warren at 28 percent and ahead of Bernie Sanders (18 percent) and Joe Biden (12 percent). The RCP average of Iowa polls now shows a tighter race with Warren at 22.5 percent, Biden at 18.8 percent, Buttigieg at 15.8 percent, and Sanders at 15.3 percent.
Simply by turning Iowa into a four-way race, Buttigieg has made the Democratic primary more unpredictable. The last four Democratic presidential nominees each won Iowa. Yes, Democrats award their delegates proportionally, but momentum matters, and there’s nothing quite so persuasive in a large intra-party fight as an early victory. “I think Iowa is much more important this cycle than it’s been in any of the other cycles I’ve been in,” veteran Democratic campaign consultant Joe Trippi tells National Review. “Somebody comes out of Iowa, they’re likely to be a rocket ship, particularly if it’s a surprise.”
A victory in Iowa, of course, is no guarantee that Buttigieg would ultimately win the nomination. David Catanese wrote this week in The State that Buttigieg campaign focus groups in South Carolina show him struggling to gain any support among African-American Democratic primary voters, in part because he’s openly gay. A victory in Iowa could help ease concerns about Buttigieg’s electability, just as Barack Obama’s early victory in Iowa helped assuage Democratic fears that it would be risky to make Obama the first African-American major-party presidential nominee.
Still, it would appear to be harder for Buttigieg to parlay an Iowa victory into a win in South Carolina than it was for Obama in 2008 or would be for Joe Biden, Cory Booker, or Kamala Harris this cycle. Buttigieg’s sexual orientation isn’t the only thing limiting his support to wealthier, more educated, white Democrats; he’s also hampered by the fact that he’s often really boring. Obama could unite a winning Democratic coalition by playing the roles of both professor and preacher; Buttigieg only seems to know how to be the former. The mayor also isn’t really as moderate as he now wants you to think. Barack Obama said he supported banning late-term abortion, but Buttigieg opposes any legal limits on abortion. Buttigieg would not strip churches, synagogues, and mosques of their tax-exempt status for refusing to perform same-sex marriages, but he would use the power of the state to crush traditional religious schools and other institutions that uphold their faith’s teachings on sex, gender, and marriage. He also wants to remake the Supreme Court, increasing the number of justices from nine to 15.
That said, Buttigieg does have a few things going for him. His campaign has $23 million in the bank, nearly as much as Warren’s and twice as much as Biden’s. What’s more, a huge portion of the field — Senators Warren, Sanders, Harris, Booker, and Klobuchar — could be trapped in Washington for President Trump’s impeachment trial in the weeks leading up to Iowa, depending on how the House’s inquiry shakes out.
Ultimately, Iowa will be the key for Buttigieg, and while the Iowa State poll suggests it’s worth keeping an eye on him there, it’s also too early to write off lower-polling Democrats in the caucuses. In 2012, for example, the eventual Republican winner of Iowa (Rick Santorum) was polling below 5 percent at this point in the race. In 1988, Joe Trippi recalls, the Dick Gephardt campaign, on which he was working, was “dead last three weeks out [from Iowa caucus day] at 7 percent.” Gephardt went on to win Iowa. With more than three months still to go until the first-in-the-nation nominating contest, Trippi says, “I wouldn’t count anyone out.”