Going into early primaries as the front-runner has its drawbacks. Should the surging Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) fail to win Iowa or New Hampshire, her current success will make later results disappointing. Past success in a state also raises expectations perilously high. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) won more than 49 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses in 2016; his RealClearPolitics average in Iowa polls is now 12 percent, less than a point ahead of South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

What should happen, say, if Buttigieg comes in third in Iowa, ahead of one of the current three front-runners? That’s a real possibility, and one reason that a betting person wanting to put money on an underdog might pick Buttigieg.

Buttigieg has a number of factors in his favor. First, he is a proven fundraiser (taking in more than $19 million in the third quarter). Second, he attracted big crowds and extremely positive coverage on his Iowa road trip. Third, he is doing what every other non-Biden candidate has failed to do: He is standing firm in the center left. He’s not promising single-payer health care nor confiscatory gun policies. Fourth, he is smart and succinct enough in a debate to make trouble for the far-left candidates, thereby boosting his profile as one of the most adept combatants from the center-left. Warren has yet to be tested as the co-front-runner with Joe Biden, but Buttigieg has already begun by challenging her refusal to cop to tax increases needed to fund single-payer health care and, going even further, suggesting that this is a political character flaw (e.g. not leveling with voters). Fifth, his military service helps his electability argument. It not only gives him some national security credibility but also helps him to take President Trump down more than a few pegs; he can contrast his own service with Trump’s fortuitous “bone spurs” that got him out of serving in Vietnam. Finally, he is the most genuinely middle-class candidate among the top contenders. No millions from book sales, speeches, consulting gigs or past Senate fund-raising (to slide over into the presidential campaign fund).

The conventional wisdom has been that Biden has to collapse before someone can move up in the not-too-far-left category of candidates. However, Biden might not disintegrate, and in fact, the loyalty of African Americans suggests that he will maintain a solid base of support at least until the early primaries. However, it is entirely possible that Buttigieg, without attacking Biden (in fact, he has smartly defended Biden against Trump’s scurrilous attacks), can impress debate-watchers and early state caucus and primary voters to pull him even with better-known candidates who should be able to clobber a mayor of a medium-size Midwestern city.

The wildcard in all of this is impeachment and Trump scandals. The mere possibility that Trump might not be the nominee is arguably enough to prompt primary voters to reexamine what it means to be electable. Moreover, as we trek down a path even more exhausting, terrifying and exasperating than the three years that proceeded it, with the circle of wrongdoers expanding well beyond the president, there is something to be said for someone who does not want to start a revolution, but rather, recover from the Trump ordeal. Someone preternaturally calm, logical and self-effacing might provide a welcome contrast to the Republican carnival.

Buttigieg remains far behind the front-runners. That said, he is closing the gap between himself and Sanders (who is going in the opposite direction in the polls). He is not currently perceived as a threat to other candidates so does not take much, if any, incoming fire from opponents. In sum, as improbable as it might seem, next to Warren (who’s running a near-perfect campaign) Buttigieg might have the most effective campaign operation and message. It has been good enough to lift the mayor of South Bend into the top four candidates in the race.

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