On Sunday, Emerson Polling released a poll of likely Iowa caucusgoers, showing a large jump in support for Pete Buttigieg, the Mayor of South Bend, Indiana. The poll – conducted over the weekend – showed 11% support for Buttigieg, putting him in third place behind Joe Biden (25%) and Bernie Sanders (24%).
In January, the last time Emerson polled this group, Buttigieg had 0%. On< March 10th, Buttigieg gained national prominence after going viral for blasting his fellow Indianan, Vice President Mike Pence during a CNN-hosted town hall.
In the days after the event, he received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to his campaign, almost swamping the small team he assembled for his run. Buttigieg has already exceeded 65,000 individual donors, one of the entry thresholds to the Democratic debates.
“Mayor Pete,” as he is known to his South Bend constituents (the difficult-to-pronounce name, “Buttigieg” is native to his father’s home, the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta) is in many ways an extraordinary candidate.
If he were to win the presidency, he would be the youngest-ever commander-in-chief at thirty-nine years (as of the 2021 inauguration, beating JFK by four years), the first openly gay president, and the first veteran of the war in Afghanistan to be president. Buttigieg is also a Harvard graduate, a Rhodes scholar, fluent in multiple languages including Arabic and Norwegian, and apparently a talented pianist.
Emerson’s poll was not a poll of all voters in the United States or even Democratic voters, but focused specifically on people likely to take part in the Iowa Democratic Caucus. Iowa will be the first state to hold a nominating event next year.
Iowa is one of the whitest states in the nation, making it very unrepresentative of the increasingly diverse Democratic base. Its location in the Midwest may give Buttigieg – a mayor from Indiana – a slight advantage over other candidates.
Proponents of caucuses argue that they help level the playing field by allowing lesser known insurgent or “dark horse” candidates an opportunity to break through. This school of thought holds that whereas primaries can be won with organized money, winning a caucus requires organizing people.
Compared to a primary, Iowa’s caucus system is extremely complicated.
Buttigieg’s performance in the CNN town hall disproportionately affected the opinions of politically engaged people. While his popularity shot up among possible Iowa caucusgoers after the town hall, he didn’t see a corresponding bump in a poll by CNN of Democratic voters nationwide (only 1% supported Buttigieg).
However, it’s still early. The Iowa caucuses are a little more than ten months away.
That gives the affable Mayor Pete a lot of time to become familiar to the broader Democratic Party. While a lot of voters may not know who the South Bend Mayor is, he’s charismatic and has made a favorable impression with many commentators. That is likely to give him access to a larger audience through mass media.
Former U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke has already shown what can be achieved with a savvy social media strategy; within one day of announcing his candidacy, he had amassed more donations than even Bernie Sanders.
Mayor Pete shares many traits with Beto O’Rourke.
Both are among the youngest Democrats in the field; both have been noted for their good looks; both hail from states that Democrats have struggled in recently; both have gone viral for impassioned speeches decrying Trump; and both are known by nicknames their constituents gave them (‘Beto’ is a Spanish diminutive for O’Rourke’s given name, Robert).
However, it remains to be seen if either O’Rourle or Buttigieg, or any other candidate for that matter, can seriously compete with the two strongest, best-known candidates in the Democratic field – Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.(Biden has not announced, but there’s a possibility he will soon.)