Debate Preview: Buttigieg’s Moment – or Pete-ing Too Soon?

November 20, 2019

It’s Lonely at the Top: Just Ask O’Rourke, Sanders, Biden, Harris & Warren

Fifty Years of Midwestern White Military Men in Democratic Primaries

By Al Giordano

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg now leads the pack in the most recent Iowa and New Hampshire polls. Will tonight’s debate serve as his national breakthrough moment? Or is Mayor Pete simply going through the same up-and-down cycle that Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren have already experienced in 2019 due to a fickle Democratic electorate that, traumatized after 2016, is afraid to commit?

The Des Moines Register survey taken from November 8 to 13 by pollster Ann Selzer – widely considered the gold standard for Iowa polling – shows a Buttigieg surge: he currently tops the field with 25 percent to 16 for Warren, 15 each for Biden & Sanders, and also a boom-let for Amy Klobuchar now at six percent. Buttigieg has risen 16 points in Iowa from Selzer’s September poll while Warren has slipped six, Biden is down five, Sanders has bumped up four points, post-heart attack, and Klobuchar is up three points.

Likewise, the New Hampshire Institute of Politics poll at St. Anselm’s college in Manchester, in the field from November 13 to 18, shows Buttigieg ahead for the first time there with 25% (+15 from its September survey), Warren and Biden at 15% (down 10 and 9 percent respectively), Sanders at 9 percent (down two points; no cardiac bump there) and Klobuchar up three: at six points now.

Some useful context comes when looking at the longer-term trends in the data since the campaign got going last spring. Political operative and analyst Steve Schale, who ran the Obama campaign in Florida in 2008, has noted that the week prior to Biden’s entrance in the contest he polled at 30 percent nationwide (today Biden’s still there, at 30.7 in the Real Clear Politics average of all polls), Sanders was at 24 percent (today at 16.7, down more than seven points), Buttigieg was at 9 percent (nationwide, he is down one point from last spring even as he is now in favor in the two rural and white early states where he has by many accounts run an effective campaign), Harris was at eight percent (now at 4.3 percent) and Warren was at seven percent (now at an average of 18 percent). The biggest movers over the breadth of the campaign have been Warren, up 11, and Sanders, down seven. And everybody else is firmly planted within the margin of error of exactly where they started.

Flavors of the Month

When Beto O’Rourke announced his campaign on March 14, he raised a record $6.1 million dollars in small contributions on the very first day. Vanity Fair did a glossy cover puff piece on him. Within weeks multiple polls showed him rocketing to third place behind Biden and Sanders. He hired some of the best available campaign staffers including Jennifer O’Malley Dixon as campaign manager and Jeff Berman as delegate tracker, key veterans of the Obama machine. Supporters of competing candidates got jealous and angry of his success and went full negative on him. His fundraising slowed down to mid-tier levels (on a par with that of Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker). At the first debate in late June, Julian Castro went on the attack against him. He never recovered. Neither did Castro. It could be said that Castro traded his political life for O’Rourke’s.

The next flavor of the month was Bernie Sanders. As Joe Biden made everyone wait for his official announcement, Sanders was the only candidate with national name recognition. He peaked at about 24 percent in April. Sanders seemed positioned to rerun his “progressive versus centrist” script from 2016 in a two-horse race where others had not yet gained polling traction. Then Biden announced his candidacy, quickly shooting from 29 percent to 41 percent support in the next two weeks, and Sanders shot down to a 14-percent average nationwide in early May. By the first debate in late June Sanders had inched back up a peg to 16.9 percent. Today he’s at 16.7 in the aggregate of polls. He’s still got a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream named after him, but he’s no longer flavor-of-the-month.

Biden walked into the first debate the clear frontrunner. Kamala Harris clocked him for his early-career opposition to desegregating public schools by busing students. Her “that little girl was me” line was delivered with perfect pitch and force. She shot up from seven percent to 15 percent in a week as voters imagined her nailing Donald Trump the same way, while Biden fell from 32 percent to 26 percent.

Harris was flavor of the month – but it didn’t last. Even before the next debate her national support had settled down to hover around ten percent. At that second debate, Harris went after Biden again, this time embracing Medicare for All and attacking Biden for not supporting it. Biden parried her thrust to co-brand himself anew with Obamacare (and with Obama), and Harris’ standing in national polls – even in home state California surveys – has been on the decline ever since.

In late June Warren hovered in the early teens in national polling. She had been inching up slowly, with some snakes-and-ladders potholes and bumps, since May. Harris’ new support after the first debate had not come out of Warren’s, which continued in the low teens until the second debate. Harris had, instead, shaken loose some Biden voters with her first attack. After the second round didn’t go as well for Harris, Warren ticked up four points to 18 while Harris ticked down from 10 to 6, which is where each was prior to the September 13 debate. It was that third debate where Warren made her move and voters saw her as presidential. In three weeks, Warren shot up from 16 points to suddenly being slightly ahead of Biden in national polling averages with 26.6 percent to Biden’s 26.4. Supporters of not just Biden, but also of Sanders and Harris, blamed Warren for their own candidates’ misfortunes.

To the Bernie Bros online, Warren was another Obama-style “neoliberal.” To parts of the Harris supporting “KHive” on Twitter, Warren was just another Bernie Sanders – and another Beto O’Rourke, who somehow had miraculously risen due only to her white privilege (a magic trick that Kirsten Gillibrand, now out of the race, somehow was unable to perform).

Rather than being all good things to all people, the role of “perceived frontrunner” or “the candidate with momentum” quickly turned O’Rourke, Sanders, Biden, Harris and Warren into “all bad things to every rival’s supporters.” Each one of them got demonized the moment they developed traction.

Rallying Around Grandpa’s Bed

Bernie Sanders had, on October 2, what his campaign first said were “chest pains” but resulted to be a heart attack. On that date he was averaging 16.8 percent in the aggregate of polls. To hear his supporters talk, he has “surged” since then! Where is he today in that same RealClearPolitics average? Oh, look, Bernie’s at… 16.7 percent – a decimal point below where he had been before anyone knew of his heart problems. Endorsements by three-quarters of “The Squad” couldn’t revive him politically.

Anyone who has been around lefty circles can tell us exactly what happened here, as could anyone with a rich grandpa who suddenly had a heart attack: One’s would-be heirs start jockeying for position to control the family fortune going forward. It’s suck-up to grandpa time! He could still rewrite his political will!

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who only weeks ago did a video clip together with Elizabeth Warren where she critiqued the Game of Thrones finale for giving the throne to a man instead of a woman, opted, however, for a king over a queen in real life.

Like Michael Corleone said to Tom Hagen in The Godfather when it turned out that Tessio, and not Clemenza, had been the capo that had betrayed him, “It was the smart move. Tessio was always smarter.”

What AOC did there was to cement her status – at least for now, until they come for her, too (which they will, as US white leftists always do) – as heir apparent to the leadership of Bernie’s “movement” (not actually a movement, but most of you know that already; the inheritance is more for a piece of spectacular terrain in media status). That only came after it was clear that his time on that particular throne will soon end its final season and fight is brewing over Sanders’ political estate.

But the narrative put forward by Sanders’ most zealous supporters – that he’s rebounded, that he’s surged, that he’s drawing Warren voters back to him, and always with the added pity party of grievance that “the media refuses to cover Bernie’s rise!” – has proved to be utter fiction; a fantasy of messianic resurrection. The press didn’t report it because it didn’t happen. Sanders hasn’t taken a single vote from Warren. He’s exactly where he was in the polls before the heart attack according to the data. And he remains having lost a third of his support since March.

No, while Warren descended by seven or eight points after she became frontrunner-for-a-day, Biden has risen four points and Buttigieg has risen three. It’s the jitters of that part of the Democratic electorate that wants to fall in love but runs away the moment it feels those special butterflies in the stomach.

Democratic voters, so far, have not let anybody remain on top. Every time a nominee begins to emerge they get cold feet, second-guess themselves, and look for a new prom date. Not even Warren’s recent descent (although she’s risen the most over the long term) has given Sanders any kind of boost, according to the data. Biden is still on top. And Warren remains the only candidate to significantly improve her footing nationwide during 2019. Sanders is the only candidate to see his political real estate significantly decline in the same year. Pretty much everything else that has happened so far has been noise in terms of who wins the nomination.

It’s human nature to get distracted by the daily push and shove of what, in the end, are only microscopic movements of terrain between the candidates, so as to fail to see the long-term trends – or lack of them.

Still, the Pete Buttigieg-as-early-state-frontrunner bauble is a new and shiny object, so let’s play with it and see what we can learn.

The Placeholder Candidate

It turns out that Eric Holder won’t be a candidate in 2020. Instead, right now we have Pete Placeholder. To wit:

In presidential primaries with a large field of candidates there sometimes emerges, in the year prior to the voting, what might be called a “placeholder candidate,” someone who is new and a little bit mysterious, with whom voters that are having a hard time choosing among the real top tier candidates take refuge temporarily as a way to avoid having to choose among the finalists quite yet.

In 2003 the placeholder candidate was Chicago-born military general Wesley Clark who had rocketed to the top of the polls in September of that year (Another midwesterner, Missouri US Rep. Dick Gephardt, also enjoyed time sharing that top tier with Clark: he was not a military veteran but his campaign did make incessant references to his having been an Eagle Scout). In 1991 there were two: former Navy jet pilot and Iowa senator Tom Harkin and wounded Vietnam war veteran and Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey, who in the final quarter of that year had together cornered 27 percent of the polling share only to cave by New Hampshire. The bow-tied senator and US Army veteran from Illinois Paul Simon held that niche, hovering around 20 percent, for much of late 1987, but Mike Dukakis quickly stole his milkshake. In 1983, it was the former Air Force pilot, astronaut and Ohio senator John Glenn, at 30 percent in the polls through the latter half of that year. He was bested by another white, male midwesterner, Walter Mondale, who didn’t much feature his military service during the Korean conflict because he served tranquilly it at Kentucky’s Fort Knox. All white men from the Midwest, all of them military veterans who had been deployed abroad in wartime: the living incarnations of Norman Rockwellesque Father-Knows-Best reassurance.

The only candidate of the last fifty years to emerge from that niche and in fact become the nominee was South Dakota senator and former military airman George McGovern – who went on to lose 49 of 50 states to Richard Nixon. Maybe things would have turned out better had McGovern been just a placeholder instead.

These quirky “feelgood” candidates fit a kind of boutique concept of what kind of candidate might be able to win in November: the proverbial midwestern white man in a uniform. These guys also served, in each of their cycles, as a convenient excuse by some voters to avoid pissing off friends and neighbors who were caught up in brutal primary wars between the real top tier candidates of each cycle. They were the amber fields-of-grain candidates, each cycle’s Wonder Breads: yet it’s no, ahem, wonder that the nicknames “Cream of Pete” and “Mayo Pete” have also stuck to the new guy.

After all, in 2019, before the field’s top tier is fully determined (it’s still not), who wants to become a target of the worst of the online stans for Biden, Sanders, Warren or Harris? All four have some absolutely vicious corners of online support who spend far too much time attacking others for preferring – or even for considering – a different Democrat. And they all attack Nate Silver when he bears the bad news about how their candidates are doing at any given moment. (If you’re dragging Nate Silver, you’re only admitting that your candidate is losing.)

One cohort of people who claim to have the only true position on health care, for example, spent the last week attacking ALS patient and health care hero Ady Barkan for having endorsed someone other than their horse. Another camp recently attacked some prominent black women who supported a different woman than theirs in the contest. There are cohorts of every campaign that have some cringe-worthy supporters – that’s because, sigh, none of the campaigns are doing Camp Obama level organizing training. Those types of supporters berate and bully in lieu of persuading. Thus, some of the candidates’ own supporters are their own campaign’s worst enemies.

Why not, in that climate, take refuge with Mayor Pete? He seems like such a nice young man, so harmless and non-offensive. And while this is probably the longest piece on Pete Buttigieg you’ve ever read and ever will read that did not yet mention, much less define him by, his sexual orientation, yes, we can also virtue-signal our rainbow flags by announcing that we’re with him. Until now, there has been little downside to finding harbor with Buttigieg.

The Honeymoon May End Quickly

Tonight, it will be Pete Buttigieg’s turn to be the debate target. Worse for him, tonight’s debate is in Atlanta, in many ways the capital of the African-American South, where he’s already in hot water over his municipal police department’s racism back home and his campaign’s false claims – now revealed as such – to have won black support in South Carolina for one of his platform planks on civil rights. The details are more horrid than the summaries. It’s a hot mess.

If the moderators don’t raise those matters with Buttigieg, it’s a safe bet that some rivals will. How Buttigieg handles himself under fire will only be half his battle. Democratic voters are so skittish these days that if they see him taking flak they might well back off their sudden crush on him simply because taking flak itself is seen as an “electability” problem (even though it happens to everyone). So far, some have backed off supporting O’Rourke, Sanders, Biden (from his previous high of 41 percent support), Harris and Warren when the same happened to them.

If the Buttigieg weakness, however, is restricted to critiques of his missing-to-bad record on racial justice, that won’t necessarily hurt him in lily-white Iowa or New Hampshire. It might even help him some there. He may take the hit nationwide while still living the dream in the cold rural plains and hills.

The real beneficiary of a Buttigieg bump might well turn out being Joe Biden. If Buttigieg wins Iowa and New Hampshire he’ll deny rivals with more coalitional reach the opportunity to emerge, only to see Buttigieg collapse once the campaign hits terrain more reflective of the national Democratic coalition. Rather than stealing the center lane from Biden he would end up as exactly Joe Biden’s placeholder.

But history shows us that the quirky feelgood white male midwestern candidates like Buttigieg – and before him, Glenn, Simon, Harkin, Kerrey and Clark – tend to fall by the wayside as voters have to consider who to vote for rather than who to tell pollsters they wish to identify with today.

It won’t surprise me when all is said and done if Mayor Pete ends up as the Wesley Clark of this cycle. In the fall of 2003, Clark leapt out to a big lead for the 2004 Democratic nomination, with 22 percent to 13 for Howard Dean, 11 for John Kerry and Dick Gephardt and 10 for Joe Lieberman. Nobody hated Wesley Clark – until that day when he led in the polls! Then everybody turned on him. It turns out that in politics everybody loves you until you succeed.

(Amy Klobuchar is likely praying, please, Lord, do not let me lead in any polls until caucus day itself!)

It’s lonely at the top, Mayor Pete. Just ask Beto, Bernie, Joe, Kamala and Elizabeth. They can each tell you something about what to expect tonight.

We’ll be here tonight at 9 p.m. ET at Organize & Win offering live commentary throughout the debate. Logged-in subscribers will also be sharing comments in our backstage assembly hall. Not yet a subscriber? Subscribe for 2020 at this link today before 8 p.m. ET and we’ll give you the rest of 2019’s newsletters gratis and approve your Organize & Win account in time to join tonight’s backstage debate watch party. It’s where grassroots volunteers, seasoned organizers, small donors and those doing the real work of the primaries come together to watch these key moments together and assess what they mean going forward (and a rare online oasis where nobody attacks anyone else present). See you there tonight.

You must be logged in to view this content. If you are not a member, register here!