vision 2020

Does Pete Buttigieg Have a Plausible Path to the Nomination?

Perhaps not a long shot anymore. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Ben: Pete Buttigieg has long been quite strong in Iowa polling, and a new survey out today continues that trend — according to USA Today–Suffolk, he’s within striking distance of Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, with 13 percent, five points from Biden’s lead, though 29 percent of caucusgoers say they’re undecided. With the likelihood that he’ll do well — maybe very well — in Iowa growing, but with his lack of traction among black voters showing few signs of improving, does he have a legitimate path to winning the Democratic nomination?

Ed: Yeah, though it’s a narrow one with a lot of factors beyond his control.

Sarah: I’m not willing to discount him completely, but while it’s possible that he has a path, realistically it’s a difficult one.

Ed: The path I discern involves Biden beginning to struggle (which we’ve all been waiting for throughout the invisible primary season) at the same time Buttigieg is killing off all those other Biden-alternative candidacies in Iowa. The latter looks entirely possible; not sure Beto, Booker, Harris, or Klobuchar are going to get out of Iowa alive. If Biden really declines quickly, you could have a weird Buttigieg-Warren-Sanders fight pretty early, and none of them exactly has a corner on minority voters (though Bernie’s doing better this year than he did early on in 2016). I’d put my money on Warren in that scenario, but Pete would have a chance.

Ben: Buttigieg is clearly trying to position himself as the moderate alternative to Biden, as Ed said. At the last debate, he was aggressive in his criticism of Elizabeth Warren’s fuzziness on how to pay for Medicare for All. In the process, he seems to have turned off some progressives, who were already suspicious of him. A report today that Mark Zuckerberg gave him recommendations on political hires has only furthered the impression on the left that he can’t be trusted to tackle the issues they care about. Buttigieg seems to be betting that he does not need this bloc of voters in his corner — is that a good bet from a political standpoint?

Sarah: He needs them to win the primary, at least, so no, I don’t think it’s a good bet. I also think it’s important to understand exactly why left voters object to his closeness with Zuckerberg — it’s not all due to their belief that Facebook is a monopoly that should be broken up. It’s business as usual. People who wouldn’t call themselves socialists or even liberals are tired of it. Buttigieg is close to CEOs right when public opinion seems to have shifted firmly against corporate America and in favor of policies like a wealth tax, which target executives like Zuckerberg. It’s potentially a weakness for him with the very working-class voters he says the Democratic Party needs to recruit.

Ed: Yeah, I don’t really understand why Pete would want to associate himself with Zuckerberg, and if I were him, I’d try to be the Non-Corporate Moderate in the race. He can raise money without relying on Wall Street and Silicon Valley. I’ve even been willing to argue that to some extent Buttigieg might be able to pull off a sort of centrism-plus-identity appeal like the last two Democratic presidential nominees, though obviously, there aren’t as many LGBTQ Democratic primary voters as there are feminists or African-Americans. But this is a bad moment to be Mr. Wall Street.

Ben: One thing that has distinguished his candidacy, though — especially considering what a long shot he was at the start — is how much money he’s brought in. He’s got an impressive campaign war chest, with a lot of money coming from small donors, but a lot also coming from the kind of corporate interests Warren and Bernie Sanders have shunned. The cash has allowed him to mount a major campaign apparatus in Iowa, including running TV ads, and it seems to be making a mark. Do voters who like his articulateness and what they see as pragmatism care so much about this aspect of the campaign that shutting off the spigot to Silicon Valley and Wall Street would be worth it?

Sarah: Maybe not in Iowa, but elsewhere, maybe? I think we put too much stock in Iowa, generally.

Ben: It is true that there’s quite a history of people winning it, then not going on to sustain the momentum.

Sarah: All I’d say is that Clinton’s own identity-plus-centrism appeal to voters did not work out well for her in the general, and I think it’s fair to blame that failure in part on the public’s perception of her as a moneyed elitist.

Ed: You may be right, but we will all argue until the end of time about which of Clinton’s problems was most important. And look, I am about as credentialed a career centrist as anyone you will meet, but while I don’t think it has any general-election magic associated with it any more, you can make a good case that Democratic primary voters still feel that way.

As for Iowa, as I noted earlier, its influence depends on who does and doesn’t survive it. It very nearly knocked HRC right out of the 2008 race; if she hadn’t pulled off the N.H. upset five days later, it would have.

Ben: One thing we haven’t heard much about Buttigieg is his suitability in a general election. Biden’s perceived strength against Trump is one of his campaign’s central planks, and Sanders and Warren have arguments on their side, too — that they’ll spur enthusiasm among the young and/or among people who are usually not that politically engaged. Does Buttigieg have a particular electability argument one way or the other? He is very young and also gay, which would be a first for a presidential nominee. Do you have any sense of how those factors would play out if he were to win?

Sarah: It’s really hard to say. I’m sure he’s banking on centrism as a way to win over white working-class voters, but again, that didn’t work out for Clinton, and I don’t think it will necessarily work out for anyone else.

Ed: I certainly don’t have the imagination to quite envision a general-election contest between someone as articulate as Buttigieg and the troglodyte in the White House. I do worry that despite all the “Trump proves you don’t need a résumé” talk, Pete’s tenure as mayor of a small city is a problem, particularly since about all we know of it is his struggle with police-minority relations.

One small asset Buttigieg has in a general election — and it could be more important in the primaries — is that he’s a voice for religiously observant, white mainline Protestants, who, ironically, given their cultural dominance for much of American history, have all but vanished from public discourse in the battle between Evangelicals and the religiously unaffiliated.

Sarah: So was Clinton, arguably.

Ed: She hardly ever talked about it, though, much like Warren, who has a similar background. Pete does talk about it, a lot. Again, I wouldn’t overestimate this as an asset for Buttigieg, but it’s real.

Ben: Given his polling, fundraising, and attention surge, would you still call him a long shot at this point?

Sarah: Yeah, I do think that’s fair to say. I think he’s really running to be vice-president at this point.

Ed: You know, that was probably true earlier, and may be true again soon enough, but he does have an opening right now if he’s both skillful and very lucky. The key variable remains Biden. A lot of us fear Uncle Joe won’t fully exhibit the weakness we perceive in him until he’s the nominee.

Does Pete Buttigieg Have a Plausible Path to the Nomination?