The Corner

Elections

Is Pete Buttigieg Gaining Momentum? Or Just Managing Expectations?

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during the Democratic presidential candidates debate in Westerville, Ohio, October 15, 2019. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

There are two ways to look at this cycle’s Democratic presidential primary. Robert Reich lays out one way — that this is a three-candidate race between Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders, and that while everyone else who’s running deserves a pat on the back, it’s always been a choice amongst the big three. Reich wants the other candidates off the debate stage, so the party can focus upon the realistic options.

The other way to look at the cycle is that the big three septuagenarians are all weaker than they look, that they’re coasting on name recognition for now, and that when the decision time gets closer for Democratic primary voters, those voters will take a second look at the trailing candidates. That’s probably wishful thinking on the part of most of the also-rans . . . but a new poll does put Pete Buttigieg in third place in Iowa at 13 percent, with Biden leading at 18 percent and Warren at 17 percent. Sanders — who came within a few coin tosses of beating Hillary Clinton — is down at 9 percent, and Kamala Harris, once considered part of the top tier, is now in a three-way tie for sixth.

It’s worth noting that the most recent Emerson poll in Iowa had Buttigieg in third with 16 percent and the most recent CBS News/YouGov poll had him in fourth with 21 percent. The 15 percent threshold matters a lot: “At each caucus, each presidential contender who fails to get at least 15 percent support among the participants in the initial balloting after a period of discussion will be considered ‘non-viable’ and all supporters of such ‘non-viable’ presidential contenders will then be required to join in the support of presidential contenders who have remained ‘viable.’”

Perhaps the most important caveat is that if Buttigieg can’t do reasonably well in Iowa, a neighboring state, it’s fair to wonder where he will do better. He’s in the high single digits in New Hampshire, is in the low single digits in Nevada, and the last Gravis poll in South Carolina had him at . . . 0 percent. A lot of campaigns tout the notion that a surprisingly strong finish in the Iowa caucuses will be a springboard to more success in the following states, but it rarely works out that way. (Certainly not on the Republican side; ask Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, or Ted Cruz.)

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