But now the Des Moines Register, which runs the most respected of all Iowa polls, has released its latest survey showing Buttigieg leading in the state, with 25 percent of voters saying he’s their first choice. For perhaps the first time, it’s at least possible to imagine Buttigieg prevailing. He could win Iowa, which then often leads to a win in New Hampshire; then that momentum could propel him along through the rest of the primaries.
On the other hand, it’s always possible that this is just a temporary blip of the kind we’ve seen many times before. Herman Cain had a moment, as did Ben Carson and Michele Bachmann. None of them got their party’s nomination.
They were Republicans, however, and the Republican Party tends to be much more interested in candidates with little or no apparent qualifications to be president than Democrats are. The closer we get to the voting, the more difficult it may be for Buttigieg to assure primary voters that the 37-year-old mayor of the 306th largest city in the United States — bigger than Kenosha, Wis., but not quite as big as West Covina, Calif., — really is qualified to be president of the United States.
That’s because Democrats are rather traditional when it comes to candidate qualifications. They took a chance on the youthful Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, but Obama was a senator and Clinton a governor, despite being not that much older than Buttigieg is. (Clinton was 46 and Obama was 47 when they were elected.) They have tended to gravitate toward candidates with extensive government experience, because as the party that believes in government, they want someone who understands it and is capable of making it work effectively.
What he lacks in experience, Buttigieg makes up for in confidence, the kind that comes from having been told a thousand times that he’s going places. Watching him, one can’t help but be reminded of what was once said about a young Al Gore, that he was an old person’s idea of what a young person should be. It’s notable that much as he may talk about generational change, Buttigieg is not actually the candidate of young voters, at least not yet. In the just-released Harvard Youth Poll of voters age 18 to 29, he comes in fifth, with 4 percent support.
Nevertheless, many of his supporters seem to feel that he hits a sweet spot of electability: not too ideological like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, but free of the unpredictability surrounding Joe Biden. Yes, he’s gay, but he’s also a white man, which many people find reassuring. “I feel he’s well positioned,” one voter told FiveThirtyEight’s Clare Malone. But electability judgments are fickle; a spate of bad polls or losses in early primaries can quickly make voters decide you look like a loser and not a winner.
Then there’s what may be Buttigieg’s central challenge: Winning over black voters, the heart of the Democratic coalition. So far Buttigieg has polled weakly among them, for a variety of reasons, including controversies over his firing of a black police chief and over police treatment of black residents of South Bend, and a pragmatic tendency in black voters that may make them skeptical of supporting a 30-something small town mayor for president.
Buttigieg has tried to reach out to them with a “Douglass Plan” (named for Frederick Douglass) to address racial inequality, but that has led to some missteps, including the use of a stock photo to illustrate it that turned out to be of a woman and child from Kenya, and touting supporters of the plan who were not exactly supporters.
Those are the kind of staff blunders that, like much of what happens in the campaign, tell you little if anything about what sort of president Buttigieg would be. But he has very little room for error. When you’re that young and that inexperienced, you don’t want to give voters any reason to think you might not be up to the task of the world’s most important job.