The Buttigieg Boom! Mayor Pete Mania! Pete-Palooza!
Whatever you want to call it, Pete Buttigieg’s moment seems to be here. A month ago, it would have been easy to dismiss the South Bend, Ind., mayor as a media creation — a candidate being covered by bored political reporters, even though voters were totally uninterested. But as more data has come in, it has become increasingly clear that the Buttigieg Boomlet is real.
Polling, media and fundraising data all suggest that Buttigieg has gained some real ground over the last few weeks, and should be treated as a real contender. But it’s important not to overstate the size and significance of that boom — there’s a long, difficult path from where he is now to the Democratic nomination.
Buttigieg doesn’t have a huge following, but his rise is visible in the polling. In the RealClearPolitics average, Buttigieg is at 4.5 percent — right between Sen. Elizabeth Warren (at 5.7 percent) and Sen. Cory Booker (3.7 percent). Five percent isn’t much, but it’s not bad considering he started with no support, many Democrats still don’t know who he is and he’s competing with roughly 10 other plausible candidates. Buttigieg has also been improving in the early states. RealClearPolitics puts him at 7 percent in Iowa (good enough for fifth place, between Sen. Kamala D. Harris and former representative Beto O’Rourke). Buttigieg is at 4.3 percent in New Hampshire, behind O’Rourke (5.5 percent) and ahead of both Booker and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (3.8 percent each).
Non-polling data looks decent for Buttigieg, as well. Google search data, TV data and fundraising all suggest that his candidacy is more than just simple media-driven hype. Buttigieg started to gain momentum after his CNN town hall in March, raising $600,000 the day after it aired and apparently setting off a real increase in search interest for the mayor. Buttigieg has likely also benefited from getting a larger amount of coverage on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News over the last two weeks, but the immediate search interest and his substantial fundraising haul ($7.1 million) suggest there might be something more than hype here.
Put simply, Buttigieg has moved from the strange outer limits of the 2020 landscape (where Marianne Williamson and Andrew Yang hang out) into at least the second tier of the Democratic field. I still don’t think he’s quite as strong as first-tier candidates such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former vice president Joe Biden (who has yet to officially enter the race) and Harris, but he’s gone from a total nonfactor to competing with more established candidates such as Warren, Booker, Klobuchar and O’Rourke.
That’s a real accomplishment. But getting into the second tier is less than half of the battle.
Becoming a major candidate is like slapping a target on your back. As Buttigieg’s momentum grows, reporters and his opponents will both dig deeper into his past. Not every candidate holds up to this type of scrutiny. During the 2012 Republican primary, candidates Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich all had a moment in the sun but eventually wilted under the spotlight. Buttigieg seems to be better equipped to deal with the spotlight: So far, his past seems cleaner than that of Gingrich or Cain, and he’s not out of step with his party like Perry was on immigration. But we don’t know much about Buttigieg yet — something damaging could surface as the campaign progresses.
Buttigieg will also have to build a real coalition basically out of thin air. The last few weeks represent a decent start — he’s shown some strength with affluent white liberals, and he seems like the type of candidate who could unite moderates and liberals while being acceptable to other party factions. But building a coalition from the ground up is difficult. The last two dark horse candidates to pull it off — Barack Obama and Donald Trump — had unique, signature issues (for Obama, it was his opposition to the Iraq War; for Trump, it was his a combination of immigration restrictionism and populist rhetoric on issues such as trade, health care and entitlements) that helped gain attention and build support. As far as I can tell, Buttigieg has no such issue and will have to find some other way to build a base if he’s going to become the nominee.
My point isn’t to rain on the Buttigieg parade. The boom is real, and he has better odds than most of his competitors. But nobody in this race has an objectively high win probability.
And even if Buttigieg fails to win the nomination, he may still get a solid consolation prize. He skipped a few rungs on the political ladder and vaulted from local Indiana politics to the national political stage. He’s an obvious contender for the vice presidential slot or a position in the next Democratic administration — and he got there without having to win a tough Senate or gubernatorial race in ruby-red Indiana.