What’s Behind Buttigieg’s Iowa Surge?

Pete Buttigieg campaigns in Dubuque, Iowa, on September 23, 2019. (Elijah Nouvelage / Reuters)
Perhaps what Democrats really want is a presidential temperament.

He’s the least qualified of the top-tier Democratic presidential candidates, and the one who most clearly lacks a compelling reason for running. Yet Pete Buttigieg has somehow maintained his hold on fourth place in the 2020 nomination contest while other more heralded candidates have faded or folded altogether. And now that he has surged to the top of the polls in Iowa, it may be time to start taking his unlikely campaign seriously — and asking what exactly it is about the mild-mannered mayor of South Bend, Ind., that has endeared him to so many of his fellow Democrats.

Buttigieg received a major shot in the arm last week with the publication of a Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa poll that showed him in first place in the first-in-the-nation caucus with the support of 25 percent of respondents, nine points ahead of his nearest competitor, Senator Elizabeth Warren. He has nearly tripled his support since September, when the same poll had him at 9 percent. And he’s also moved into the lead in the RealClearPolitics average of Iowa polls.

While that’s a tribute to the success Buttigieg has had in campaigning in Iowa and the fact that he has strengthened his organization there, there is also an argument to be made that he is uniquely situated to do well in Iowa and that he is unlikely to replicate that success once the Democratic race moves on to states where there are more minority voters and fewer moderate whites who are impressed with his military record. The national picture bears this out: Buttigieg has never been above fourth place in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls of the race.

Nevertheless, it would be foolish of Buttigieg’s competitors to dismiss him as a threat. If he manages to win Iowa, there is good reason to think the resulting momentum could propel him into serious contention elsewhere. And at the very least, a close look at his current rise can shed light on what it is that Democrats want in a nominee.

Much of the analysis of the 2020 race has focused on ideology, with pundits attempting to pigeonhole the candidates into left-wing and moderate lanes that could better explain their strengths. Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders are perceived to be competing for the votes of hard-core progressives whose voices have grown louder within the party following Hillary Clinton’s disastrous 2016 defeat. Former vice president Joe Biden was supposed to dominate as the only viable moderate in the race, but while he has maintained his status as the leader in national polls, his poor debate performances, mediocre fundraising totals, and dismal polling in Iowa have given credence to the idea that he’s a paper tiger. That’s why Michael Bloomberg and Deval Patrick are preparing to enter the race and challenge Biden for control of the moderate lane, even if there’s little evidence that voters are clamoring for either of them.

Some analysts are also characterizing Buttigieg as a moderate candidate, mostly on the strength of his critique of Warren’s hugely expensive Medicare-for-All proposal. But that is a relatively low bar for defining moderation, and it’s no more clear how he would pay for his Medicare-for-All-Who-Want-It plan than how Warren would pay for her version. Nor can his plan for packing the Supreme Court with liberals and tossing out the constitutional process for picking new justices be considered moderate.

Like Biden, as well as Bloomberg and Patrick and other would-be moderate champions such as Amy Klobuchar, Buttigieg is actually tilting hard to the left on most issues. That means the discussion about lanes in the primaries is, as it was for the Republicans four years ago, more of a device that makes it easier for journalists to report on the horse race than a useful method delineating genuine and substantive differences among the candidates. What we do know about the 2020 Democratic race at this point is that if the polls are to be believed, it has become divided into two tiers of candidates, with Biden, Warren, Sanders, and Buttigieg clearly separated from everyone else.

So what has propelled Buttigieg into the first division and to the enviable position of being the favorite in the first contest of the year?

Sure, he’s got a solid autobiography as a Harvard graduate, a Rhodes scholar, and a Navy veteran who served in Afghanistan. Sure, his military service and his Midwestern roots are a clear advantage in Iowa and other red and purple states. But having never held an elected position higher than mayor of South Bend, he can’t mount a particularly compelling argument that he’s prepared to be president.

Watch him in debates, interviews, and campaign appearances, though, and the secret of his appeal jumps out: his temperament.

Buttigieg’s politics are moderate only in comparison to those of genuine radicals, but his calm, cool presence is a natural contrast to the populist fire-breathing of figures such as Trump and Sanders. He is making a bid to be America’s first gay president and touts his marriage to attract white liberals in much the same way Barack Obama profited from the prospect of being our first African-American commander-in-chief. But what he really shares with Obama is an ability to project competence and grace under pressure to persuadable voters.

That demeanor may not endear him to the African-American voters who dominate Democratic primary contests in the South and may be more socially conservative and less likely to vote for a gay candidate than white liberals elsewhere. Yet it has proven more than sufficient to keep him ahead of other candidates who have similar stands on the issues and boast better resumes — such as Klobuchar — but don’t have the same ability to propel themselves out of the also-ran category into direct competition with the front-runners.

Now that he’s ahead in Iowa, Buttigieg will become, as Warren did once she shot up in the polls to challenge Biden for the front-runner’s position, a target for other Democrats. But what Buttigieg offers Democrats is exactly the quality that may enable him to withstand that heightened scrutiny. If presidential temperament is what decides the Democratic race, Buttigieg may have the right formula to win it.


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