April 20, 2019, 15:16


Pete Buttigieg has gone from totally unknown to polling third in Iowa and New Hampshire

Pete Buttigieg has gone from totally unknown to polling third in Iowa and New Hampshire

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) remain at the top of the latest early state primary polls, but lately, they’ve been accompanied by a new candidate in the third-place spot: Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana.

The two most recent Iowa polls and the most recent New Hampshire poll all show Buttigieg in third place — still several points behind Biden and Sanders, but a point or two ahead of any other Democratic contender.

It’s not that Buttigieg has totally separated himself from the rest of the pack, since Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) are just a couple points behind him in all of these polls. But it’s worth noting when a candidate suddenly goes from regularly polling at zero to 1 percent to placing third in a very large field.

Those three recent polls are:

  • Saint Anselm College released a poll of the New Hampshire primary showing Biden with 23 percent, Sanders 16 percent, Buttigieg 11 percent, Elizabeth Warren 9 percent, and Kamala Harris at 7 percent.
  • Monmouth released a poll of Iowa showing Biden in the lead with 27 percent, Sanders at 16 percent, Buttigieg with 9 percent, and Warren and Harris with 7 percent each.
  • The most recent Iowa poll before that, from Emerson last month, showed Biden with 25 percent, Sanders 24 percent, Buttigieg 11 percent, Harris 10 percent, and Warren 9 percent.

Whether Buttigieg will manage to retain this position or grow his support further is of course unclear at this point, but we now have three polls suggesting he’s struck a chord with some Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire in a way that most of the many other Democratic candidates who have jumped into the race have not.

In fundraising too, Buttigieg has done surprisingly well. His campaign said he raised $7 million in the first quarter of this year, the fourth-best in the field (behind Sanders, Harris, and Beto O’Rourke — Biden hasn’t begun fundraising yet). This was spurred, Buttigieg recently told Vox’s Ezra Klein, by his appearance at a CNN town hall on March 10.

Lots of people still have no idea who Pete Buttigieg is

Just one month ago, Buttigieg was a complete unknown. Many pollsters hadn’t even bothered to include him as an option in polls. But when they did, the South Bend mayor never topped 1 percent in any national, Iowa, or New Hampshire poll tracked by RealClearPolitics.

Indeed, Buttigieg is still relatively little known. Monmouth’s new poll found that 46 percent of Iowa Democratic voters didn’t yet have an opinion (either favorable or unfavorable) about Buttigieg. In comparison, almost every Democratic voter has an opinion on Biden, Sanders, and Warren, while 70 percent or more have an opinion of Harris, O’Rourke, and Booker.

You could argue that this is a promising sign for Buttigieg, since many Democrats seem to have barely heard of him at this point, but a significant number who have heard of him in these early states say they’ll vote for him. Alternatively, one could argue that he’s a new face and that his appeal will wear off as he faces attacks and criticism.

Early states matter

In national polls, Buttigieg still hasn’t gotten as much of a bump. He’s no longer down at 1 percent, but Harris, Warren, O’Rourke, and Cory Booker have tended to still be ahead of him in recent polls.

While national Democratic primary polls are most common and tend to get the most attention, there is of course no “national Democratic primary” election day. Instead, the first contests will be in Iowa (currently scheduled for February 3, 2020) and New Hampshire (currently scheduled for February 11, 2020).

These contests tend to drive out poorly performing contenders and win increased attention and credibility for those who do well. For instance, both Barack Obama and John McCain spent all of 2007 trailing in national polls, but Obama’s Iowa win and McCain’s New Hampshire win in January 2008 shook up their respective races, and each eventually became the nominee. So the dynamics in these early states are worth watching closely.

In any case, it’s still incredibly early, with those first 2020 contests just under 10 months away. There haven’t yet been any debates, the race hasn’t gotten really nasty, and the poll leader Joe Biden hasn’t even officially begun his campaign. But Buttigieg has clearly had the best first quarter of any lesser-known candidate.

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