The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pete Buttigieg is winning the Internet, for what that’s worth — which remains unclear

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., spoke at the South By Southwest conference in Austin in March. (Callaghan O'Hare/Bloomberg News)
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Much of the political conversation about the 2020 Democratic presidential primary field in recent days has been dominated by two people who haven’t announced that they’re running.

There’s former vice president Joe Biden, who has yet to declare his candidacy, and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., who is in exploratory-campaign mode. Biden’s recent coverage has not been the sort that a maybe-probably candidate wants to see, heavily focused on his touchy way of interacting with women. Buttigieg’s, on the other hand, is the type of coverage that relatively unknown candidates like to see: This guy is surging!

A good example came from Axios’s morning newsletter Tuesday. Buttigieg, Axios wrote, was generating “more social-media interest per article than any of his potential 2020 rivals.” Wow!

Wow? Who knows. On this metric, Buttigieg leads former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who has not entered the race, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.). Their second- and third-place standing on the social-media-interest-per-article metric didn’t result in variants of the “Interest in ‘Mayor Pete’ is exploding” headline that Buttigieg received.

It’s clear that Buttigieg is seeing a lot of enthusiasm online. He has pulled even with Biden in PredictIt’s real-time betting market for the 2020 Democratic primaries. (Users buy shares in candidates at values between one cent and $1. The share value correlates loosely to percentages of support.) He came from basically nowhere two weeks ago and is now viewed by PredictIt bettors as the third-most-likely Democratic candidate.

Why did he pass Biden? Because PredictIt’s markets are volatile, and Biden’s support tanked because of those news stories about his past behavior.

Buttigieg also has been one of the most-searched Democratic candidates over the past week on Google. Searches for Biden have spiked — also because of those news stories — but Buttigieg is not trailing by much.

“CNN’s Harry Enten points out that [Google search volume] has ‘correlated with jumps in the polls this primary season,” Axios writes — which is true, except that both also correlate to when front-running candidates formally announced their candidacies.

Where Buttigieg hasn’t exactly soared is in polling. It’s certainly the case that for him to be outpacing U.S. senators in primary polling is no small feat. But in RealClearPolitics’s average of primary polls, Buttigieg is at 2.3 percent support — good enough for seventh place.

In last week’s much-heralded Quinnipiac University poll, where Buttigieg received his most support yet — 4 percent — he still trailed Biden by 25 points. Notice, too, that he still trails Warren by a lot, despite outpacing her on “social media interactions by article.” And despite her third-place standing on that metric, she’s only in fifth in the RealClearPolitics average.

The attention Buttigieg receives online doesn’t carry over to cable news, where he has received much less attention than the four leading Democratic candidates.

We do have some brief history of how social media interactions overlap with presidential primary results. In late 2015, the four candidates who had the most interactions on Facebook were Hillary Clinton (the eventual Democratic nominee), Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) (who gave Clinton a run for her money), Donald Trump and Ben Carson — who went on to win seven delegates at the Republican convention.

Interest in Carson exploded.

A big part of the problem here is that people are thirsty for information about what’s happening in the Democratic field at the same time that we have a vast array of data about the candidates. While it used to be the case that small changes in poll numbers served as instant PredictIt-style barometers for how things were playing out, now we have, well, PredictIt. And Facebook shares. And Google searches. We’re like untrained augurs confronting a pile of cow entrails.

Buttigieg is doing well, as his $7 million in fundraising (itself not unrelated to his online popularity) suggests. But we’re a long way from his nomination speech in Milwaukee next summer.