Pete Buttigieg has emerged as the heir to Biden’s dominance in the moderate 2020 Democratic lane, besting several senators in the process

Democratic presidential candidate South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during the fourth U.S. Democratic presidential candidates 2020 election debate at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio.

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Democratic presidential candidate South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during the fourth U.S. Democratic presidential candidates 2020 election debate at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio.
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Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

  • South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg could be wrestling dominance of the moderate lane of the Democratic primary away from former Vice President Joe Biden, thanks to his beefed-up Iowa operation.
  • A recent Iowa survey found Buttigieg in second place in 19%.
  • Currently, Buttigieg has $23 million in cash on hand compared to just $8.9 million for Biden, and has been making huge strategic investments in Iowa to edge out Biden.
  • Aside from Biden’s money issues, his state director didn’t live in the state full-time, and Iowa Democrats said Biden himself acknowledged his campaign’s ground game in the state had been lacking.
  • A strong performance in Iowa certainly won’t guarantee Buttigieg the nomination, but it could help establish him as a credible choice for future races, and keep him viable through Super Tuesday.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg could be wrestling dominance of the moderate lane of the Democratic primary away from former Vice President Joe Biden.

Thanks to the operation he’s building up in Iowa, where Buttigieg had opened almost two-dozen field offices, invested millions, they mayor has risen to near the top of early state polls.

When the millennial Afghanistan war veteran entered the race in January, his unique message of generational change and his personal charisma earned lots of attention from both the media and the Democratic donor class.

Buttigieg is jockeying to the front of the Democratic primary field ahead of over similarly moderate US Senators with far more government experience, like Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bennet, is particularly notable given his unique background – and how much it differs from those of the three leading contenders.

Buttigieg stands out compared to the other frontrunners

At age 37, he’s significantly younger than the leading candidates: Sen. Bernie Sanders is 78, Biden is 76, and Warren is 70, and all have faced questions and doubts over their ages at the October debate.

Buttigieg would be the first millennial president, and he’s compelled voters and donors alike by articulating the power of having a president from a generation that served in wars, as he did, and currently deals with exorbitant student debt.

Compared to Biden and Sanders, who have been in national politics for decades, and Warren, a well-known bankruptcy scholar before going into politics, Buttigieg is a relative newcomer to the national scene.

While the only office he’s held is the Mayor of South Bend – a city of around 100,000 – it hasn’t held Buttigieg back. Instead, he’s argued that his hands-on experience as a municipal executive keeping a city running makes him more and not less qualified to be president.

Buttigieg’s polling performance stagnated a bit after the initial honeymoon period in the spring and early summer of 2019, but he’s making a big comeback – and it’s all focused in Iowa, the first state to hold a 2020 caucus on February 2.

Buttigieg is currently polling the best in Iowa, where Real Clear Politics’ polling average shows him in second place polling at 17.5% on average ahead of both Sanders and Biden.

And more importantly, he’s giving Biden a real run for his money in the moderate lane of the Democratic primary, with lasting implications beyond Iowa.

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (L) and former Vice President Joe Biden talk during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida.

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South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (L) and former Vice President Joe Biden talk during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida.
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Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Buttigieg is going all-in on Iowa in an effort to eclipse Biden

A recent Quinnipiac University survey of almost 700 likely Iowa caucus-goers showed Warren at 20% and Buttigieg in second at 19%, Sanders at 17%, and Biden in fourth place at 15%. Both Warren’s slight lead over Buttigieg and Buttigieg’s lead over Sanders and Biden were within the poll’s margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

A New York Times/Siena College poll of Iowa released Friday also showed a close contest in Iowa, with Biden in fourth place at 17% behind Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 22%, Sen. Bernie Sanders at 19%, and Buttigieg at 18% with a margin of error of 4.7 percentage points.

In a previous USA Today/Suffolk University poll of Iowa caucus-goers, Buttigieg placed in third place at 13% behind Biden at 18% and Warren at 17%, a big shift from the June version of the same poll where Biden led with 24% support with Sen. Kamala Harris at 16%, Warren at 13%, and Buttigieg in a distant fifth place with 6% support.

While Biden entered the race as the presumptive frontrunner, he has recently seen his stature in the race diminished due to a number of factors, including the meteoric rise of Warren, a progressive candidate offering a vision of “bold, structural change” that has appealed to many voters.

There isn’t enough empirical evidence yet to substantiate the narrative that Buttigieg is experiencing a nationwide surge, but overperforming expectations in Iowa could change the dynamics of the race.

As Marquette University political scientist Julia Azari argued in a recent FiveThirtyEight politics chat, “an unexpected showing in Iowa seems like the kind of thing that could shape this race, especially if Joe Biden tanks and there’s an opportunity for someone else to wrestle the moderate mantle away.”

According to The New York Times, Buttigieg and Warren are tied for opening the most field offices in the four early primary states. And according to Insider’s SurveyMonkey Audience Polling of the 2020 Democratic primary, 35% of Biden supporters would also be satisfied with Buttigieg as the nominee.

Buttigieg’s biggest strength lies in fundraising, an area where Biden has struggled during his entire political career and especially this cycle. He brought in $25 million in 2019’s second quarter – beating all the other candidates – and raised $19.1 million in the third fundraising quarter that ended on September 30.

Buttigieg now has $23 million in cash on hand compared to just $8.9 million for Biden, and has been using his cash advantage to make significant investments in the Hawkeye State, opening 22 Iowa field offices and recently hiring almost 100 new staffers in the state.

A new report in Bloomberg further revealed the weaknesses of Biden’s ground operation in Iowa, where he is able to invest fewer resources compared with his top rivals in those states. Bloomberg found that aside from Biden’s money issues, his state director didn’t live in the state full-time, and Iowa Democrats said Biden himself had acknowledged his campaign’s ground game in the state had been lacking.

When it comes to fundraising, The New York Times reported that Buttigieg “has won over many former Obama-era ambassadors as a 37-year-old fresh face for the party” away from Biden, further hastening the former vice president’s financial woes.

Bradley Tusk, a former campaign manager for Michael Bloomberg who recently hosted a fundraiser for Buttigieg, told The Times that in attendance were “a lot of those people you would have thought would be Biden people,” adding that “the feeling in the room” was “that Biden has already lost.”

There is one big caveat, however, to Buttigieg’s success in attempting to siphon away moderate voters from Biden.

While Biden has lost some support among white voters, his running explicitly on his own electability against Trump is paying off among black voters, an extremely important demographic that Democratic candidates must turn out and win. He still holds a commanding lead among African-American voters – especially black voters without a college degree – which has persisted throughout the election cycle so far.

Buttigieg, on the other hand, has consistently struggled among non-white voters, and still receives 0% support among black voters, according to the Economist’s 2020 Democratic primary poll tracker.

Biden’s strong support among black voters is due to a number of overlapping factors including his close relationships in the community, and the fact that African-American voters tend to both be more ideologically moderate than white ones and more pragmatic in their voting behavior.

Still, Biden’s electability-based strategy is a risky one. While his campaign is already downplaying expectations in Iowa, claiming he can win big in South Carolina and Super Tuesday states, a third- or even fourth-place finish in Iowa, New Hampshire, or both could seriously damage his standing beyond repair among electability-minded voters, and turn moderate voters toward Buttigieg – if he positions himself as the most viable moderate.

The Quinnipiac poll showed Biden, Buttigieg, and Warren in a dead heat at 21% among Iowa voters who listed electability as their number one priority when choosing who to vote for in the Democratic primary.

“For Iowa caucus-goers checking the electability box as their top quality in choosing a candidate, there is no one candidate with a clear edge,” said Quinnipiac pollster Mary Snow.

But Buttigieg believes he can prove his mettle among all stripes of voters and demonstrate he can beat Trump with an initially strong showing when it all begins in Iowa.

“In order to settle the question of electability, the best thing you can do is perform well in an actual election. Iowa’s of course the first. And so that’s where a lot of our focus is going to go,” he told The Times.

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