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Pete Buttigieg Makes a Move While Occupying the Middle Ground

Recent polls show the South Bend mayor leading the Democratic presidential primary field in Iowa as he resists the leftward leanings of leading contenders like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, while offering an alternative to centrists like Joe Biden

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On November 1, Beto O’Rourke ended his campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. He entered the race in March with a superstar’s hype, but ultimately floundered in the ideological gap between the old-fashioned, establishmentarian outlook of former vice president and then-front-runner Joe Biden, and the socialist vision of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren emerged as the early challenger to Biden’s and Sanders’s dominance, in large part by emulating the latter’s signature single-payer health care proposal, “Medicare for All.” California Senator Kamala Harris’s candidacy peaked when she challenged Biden to defend his civil rights record in the first debate in June, but she’s languished in the polls ever since she reversed her support for “Medicare for All.” Sanders and Warren have cast the primary as a referendum on “big, structural change.” Their rivals have struggled to sell more modest, incrementalist alternatives. O’Rourke’s failure stemmed from his inability to move the race away from ideological arguments and into a personality contest, which may have elevated his appeal as a red-state superstar with ambiguous political commitments. Even so, O’Rourke suffered from competition with South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

For several months this year, Buttigieg, 37, sat at single-digit support in most national polls, ranking between the front-runners and the also-ran candidates, such as Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. Even though Buttigieg is a young, unproven figure, his persistence as a long-shot contender can be attributed to his patience and discipline compared with his rivals. Now, Buttigieg leads key statewide polls. On Saturday, The Des Moines Register and CNN published poll results that show Buttigieg has a decisive lead—25 percent—in support among likely Democratic voters in Iowa. Warren, in second place, now trails Buttigieg by 9 percentage points, while Biden and Sanders are tied for third place. Less than two months ago, Warren led the same poll for the first time in the 2020 presidential primary season. Now, Buttigieg and Warren split well-educated white voters into two factions: Warren has the advantage in support among white, college-educated progressives, and Buttigieg has support from white, college-educated moderates. While Biden and Sanders compete for black voters, Buttigieg and Warren compete for white voters in the new Democratic bastion: the suburbs.

Buttigieg didn’t launch his presidential campaign as an anti-leftist crusader, but he plays the role better than candidates like Biden and Klobuchar. Recently, Buttigieg has taken to scolding his Democratic rivals for their left-wing impulses: O’Rourke for pitching gun confiscation, Sanders and Warren for pitching single-payer health care, and Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard for pitching full U.S. military withdrawals from Afghanistan and Syria. For weeks, O’Rourke mocked Buttigieg’s reluctance to support a ban on assault weapons, a ban O’Rourke advocated for after the August 3 shooting in his hometown of El Paso, Texas. “I don’t need lessons from you on courage,” Buttigieg snapped at O’Rourke on the debate stage in Ohio. Having previously stumped in favor of “Medicare for All,” Buttigieg now puts forth a proposal he calls “Medicare for All Who Want It” and challenges Warren to explain whether single-payer health care would require Congress to outlaw private insurance while raising taxes on middle-income earners. “Your signature, Senator, is to have a plan for everything,” Buttigieg told Warren, “except this.” Two weeks later, Warren updated her $20.5 trillion health-care proposal—now complete with high-income tax increases—but she’s stalled in most polls since Buttigieg confronted her on stage in Ohio.

Buttigieg’s recent surge in Iowa threatens to ruin Warren’s plans for a breakout victory in the February contests in the same states that empowered Barack Obama to overtake Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. There are regional advantages in play: Sanders (Vermont) and Warren (Massachusetts) enjoy strong support among voters in New Hampshire, and Buttigieg (Indiana) should enjoy a regional advantage in Iowa, as Obama (Illinois) did in 2008. But Buttigieg must prove his viability beyond Iowa as he otherwise struggles to match Biden, Sanders, and Warren in Nevada, South Carolina, and the Super Tuesday states, including California and Texas. Like Warren, Buttigieg hopes to prove his “electability” to voters in those later states by performing well, and preferably winning, the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

Buttigieg struggles in South Carolina, where Biden leads the field by a wide margin, and where Buttigieg sits closer to his average standing in national polls of 8 percent. On paper, Buttigieg might reasonably assume he should be polling higher than Sanders and Warren in South Carolina: Southern Democrats, including black Democrats, are relatively moderate, and so, too, is Buttigieg. However, a recent poll put Buttigieg at 3 percent among likely Democratic voters in the state, and 1 percent among black voters. An internal campaign memo surfaced last month raising concerns about Buttigieg’s standing with black voters in South Carolina, including those who might oppose his candidacy, or at least regard him skeptically, because he’s openly gay. In response to a question about the memo, black South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn said “there’s no question” Buttigieg’s sexuality is an issue with “older African Americans.” Buttigieg has pushed back at such assertions: “It is remarkable how Americans are capable of moving past old habits, moving past old prejudices, making history, and getting the president who will serve them best regardless of some of the other noise that’s circling around the race,” Buttigieg told CNN.

Buttigieg’s South Carolina strategy underscores his reluctance to engage with factions beyond his moderate white base. On Friday, Ryan Grim of The Intercept published a story about Buttigieg’s racial justice agenda, which is titled “The Douglass Plan.” The plan was supposedly “endorsed” by more than 400 black leaders in South Carolina. Grim spoke with several Douglass Plan signatories only to find that Buttigieg’s campaign drafted the plan without any input from those leaders and then misrepresented their support for his proposals as endorsements for his presidential campaign. “There is one presidential candidate who has proven to have intentional policies designed to make a difference in the black experience, and that’s Pete Buttigieg,” reads the open letter attached to the plan. However, many signatories have endorsed other presidential candidates or withheld their endorsement altogether. Buttigieg’s critics cite his low support in South Carolina as his distinct problem with black voters, but, worse yet, and more broadly, it’s indicative of his struggle to build a coalition in a diverse, energized party.

Biden’s advanced age—he’s 77—has become his most worrisome detriment on the campaign trail. He’s suffered gaffes and fatigue at almost every televised turn since he launched his presidential campaign seven months ago. In theory, Buttigieg’s youth should alternatively inhibit him in a primary filled with popular U.S. senators: He’s too young, untested, and inexperienced to win the nomination in such a desperate anti-Trump climate. Earlier this month, former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg and former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick entered the 2020 contest. Both men will appeal (in theory) to moderate Democrats who worry about Biden but can’t yet bring themselves to support Booker, Harris, Klobuchar, or Buttigieg—especially given Buttigieg’s inexperience. If anything, though, Buttigieg’s youth should reassure the party’s center-left elders. For leftists, Buttigieg is, in many ways, a more demoralizing figure than Biden. If Biden wins the presidency, he’ll enter the White House at age 78, and will have likely thwarted Sanders’s last attempt at the presidency. If Buttigieg wins, he may well thwart a socialist presidency for a generation.

Like Biden, Buttigieg pitches himself as a curative leader who is able to quell the worst impulses of Trumpism with modest public policy goals. Anti-Trump sentiment has progressives and leftists organizing more aggressively than ever before, but it also has left many Democratic voters longing for a peaceful presidential term. Buttigieg and Biden aren’t the only Democratic presidential candidates promising to heal the country through modest, technocratic advancements; Booker and Klobuchar have promised as much, but have achieved much less in the presidential race. O’Rourke, too, pledged a return to progressive sentimentalism as a governing philosophy, his decisive gun confiscation proposal notwithstanding. O’Rourke is no leftist, but he at least strived to reconcile his party’s conflicting passions, and he reserved his contempt for Trump and congressional Republicans. Buttigieg reserves his most vivid contempt for the leftists in his own party. Who needs Bloomberg at this late stage? Buttigieg is no billionaire, but he’s already won their support and, better yet, their high-dollar bets against Sanders and Warren. He may well win Iowa. He may well upset the left.