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Buttigieg Showing Strength in Iowa

Even before his “fighting moderate” turn in the last debate, Buttigieg was doing well in Iowa. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

A new USA Today/Suffolk survey of Iowa is raising eyebrows today because it seems to confirm that Pete Buttigieg is enjoying a surge of support following his notable showing in last week’s candidate debate in Ohio:

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who was initially seen as a long-shot presidential contender, has surged within striking distance of former vice-president Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, a Suffolk University/USA TODAY Poll finds.

Biden, long viewed as the Democratic front-runner, is faltering in the wake of a debate performance last week that those surveyed saw as disappointing.

The poll, taken Wednesday through Friday, put Biden at 18 percent, Warren at 17 percent and Buttigieg at 13 percent among 500 likely Democratic caucusgoers.

The characterization of Biden as “faltering” after the last debate is a bit questionable, since his showing in the USAT/Suffolk survey is pretty much in line with most recent Iowa polling showing him more or less even with Warren in the state with other candidates trading positions in a tier just below them. For that matter, all four polls of Iowa taken in October (from USAT/Suffolk, Emerson, YouGov, and Firehouse Strategies/Optimus) before and after the Ohio debate have shown Mayor Pete in double digits. But this latest headline certainly reinforces the narrative Buttigieg wanted after changing his persona from the irenic, erudite peacemaker of the early going to the fighting moderate displayed in Westerville, as my colleague Gabriel Debenedetti explained after the debate:

This candidate, eager to look like a truth-teller and get in the mix as the bigger-name contenders wage ideological war, has sharper elbows than the version who has quietly been building up his Iowa operation in recent months. It’s all part of a bet he’s making that drawing these kinds of stark contrasts now — just as more voters tune in to the race and just as Warren surges — can position him to be an alternative to Joe Biden for moderate voters or at least vault him from the floor of the race’s top tier, alongside Kamala Harris, to somewhere in the vicinity of Bernie Sanders’s third-place status.

Iowa, of course (and New Hampshire, where Buttigieg is also doing pretty well in polls), is a state whose demographics do not penalize Mayor Pete for his poor standing with minority voters, especially the African-Americans who will dominate southern primaries beginning with South Carolina. This is a significant element of Biden’s base, and it’s unclear whether Buttigieg’s weakness there is attributable to his wine-track stylings, his not so great reputation among South Bend’s black activists, his openly gay sexual orientation, or a combination of factors. But if Mayor Pete is struggling a bit to break out of his demographic limitations, two of his competitors are in greater peril as Iowa polling shows. Both Harris (“I’m moving to f***ing Iowa”) and Cory Booker have heavily invested in Iowa, hoping to replicate Barack Obama’s 2008 strategy of impressing South Carolina’s majority-black primary electorate by proving viability among white voters in the early going. They’re both currently polling in the low single digits in the first-in-the-nation caucus state. The USAT/Suffolk survey was a particularly depressing bit of news for this pair of candidates: Harris, who was running a strong second to Biden in the previous USAT/Suffolk poll at the end of June, is now trailing Tom Steyer and is tied with Tulsi Gabbard, while Booker is in tenth place, behind Andrew Yang.

It’s tempting to say Harris and Booker badly need a breakthrough performance in the November debate in Atlanta, though with Booker, who has been relatively impressive in every debate, you have to wonder if even that would be enough to lift him into serious contention. And while endorsements usually don’t matter all that much in presidential contests, Buttigieg would likely benefit from the support of a high-profile African-American opinion leader. Maybe he can talk Oprah Winfrey out of her current preoccupation with convincing Disney exec Bob Iger to run.

Buttigieg Showing Strength in Iowa