Buttigieg, surging in Iowa, has a plan to win it all. Here it is.

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent

Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one key takeaway every weekday and a wrap-up each weekend. Reminder: There are 105 days until the Iowa caucuses and 379 days until the 2020 election.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Candidate has a strong debate performance. Media blathers about how candidate had a strong debate performance. Candidate rises in the polls. Media wonders aloud whether candidate can win it all.

It happened to Kamala Harris during the summer. Now it’s starting to happen to South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who was widely proclaimed one of the “winners” of last week’s Democratic primary debate in Westerville, Ohio.

But while Harris, now consigned to also-ran status, never really had a plausible path to the nomination, Buttigieg might.

As the first test (February’s Iowa caucuses) nears, several forces are shaping the race in ways that could benefit Buttigieg, and even propel him to victory, if everything breaks in his favor.

The first is that his message and delivery last Thursday resonated with voters. When Buttigieg, 37, launched his campaign earlier this year, he emphasized the idea of generational change, claiming that as someone who would “reach the current age of the current president in the year 2054,” he and only he had the vision to propose and implement the sort of bold, non-incrementalist policies that could safeguard America’s future.

But by the time Buttigieg arrived in Ohio last week, his message had shifted; onstage, he delivered sharp rebukes of candidates to his left, such as Elizabeth Warren (on Medicare for All) and Beto O’Rourke (on gun buybacks), effectively reintroducing himself as a scrappier, more passionate proponent of Midwestern center-left pragmatism.

Pete Buttigieg at a town hall in Iowa. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

“If you want the left-most possible candidate, you’ve got a clear choice. If you want the candidate with the most years in Washington, you’ve got a clear choice. For everybody else, I just might be your person,” Buttigieg said over the weekend. “I think we saw that space opening up."

According to the data, Buttigieg’s gambit worked. In a poll by Ipsos and FiveThirtyEight that tracked how the debate affected likely voters’ feelings about the candidates, Buttigieg got the biggest increase — 4.5 points — in the share of respondents who are considering supporting him; his net favorability rating went up 2.6 points, more than anyone else’s except Amy Klobuchar’s.

So far, no one has released a national poll that takes the debate into account; Buttigieg is still lingering around 6 percent in the RealClearPolitics national average, which earns him a distant fourth place.

But where it matters most — a.k.a., the first nominating state of Iowa — Buttigieg has long been outperforming his national numbers. As of Sunday, his average support was at 13 percent, only 2 points behind Bernie Sanders. Then, on Monday morning, USA Today and Suffolk University released a poll showing a “new three-way race” in the Hawkeye State, with Joe Biden at 18 percent, Warren at 17 percent, Buttigieg at 13 percent and Sanders trailing at 9 percent. Especially noteworthy was the decline in Biden’s support (down from 24 percent in the same poll during the summer) and the rise in undecided voters (up 8 points since June, to 29 percent) — both of which suggest that more moderate Iowa Democrats are increasingly uneasy with the former vice president and are casting around for another alternative to Warren and Sanders. Among respondents who watched last week’s debate, four in 10 (the most in the field) told pollsters that Buttigieg did better than they expected — meaning he could be that candidate.

Buttigieg campaigns in Clinton, Iowa. (Photo:Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

At the same time, Buttigieg is alone among the center-left Biden alternatives — a category that includes Klobuchar, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennett, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, among others — in having the money and organization to actually compete with Warren and Sanders. After two stellar fundraising quarters, Buttigieg enters the homestretch with more cash on hand ($23.4 million) than anyone except Warren ($25.7 million) or Sanders ($33.7 million). For comparison, Biden has only $9 million in the bank; Klobuchar has only $3.7 million. Buttigieg also boasts more field offices in Iowa (22) than anyone else (and the same is true in New Hampshire).

In other words, Buttigieg is actually well positioned to capitalize — unlike, say, Harris or Cory Booker — if any opportunities arise.

He’s still a long shot to win the Democratic nomination. But it’s possible to see how he’d do it. A flush, resurgent Sanders, fresh off securing the endorsement of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and rallying 25,000 supporters in Queens, continues to split the left-wing vote with Warren. Warren continues to take incoming fire. Biden’s poll numbers continue to sag, especially in the early states. And Buttigieg peaks at just the right moment, surprising everyone on caucus day with a third- or even second-place finish. Biden and Sanders limp into New Hampshire, where Buttigieg repeats the feat. And suddenly, after another poor showing from Biden in South Carolina, his firewall state, it’s a two-person race: Warren the progressive champion versus Buttigieg the Rust Belt pragmatist. Perhaps Sanders sticks around, siphoning votes from Warren. And state by state, Buttigieg eventually prevails.

Or at least that’s one theory of how he could win. The good thing for Buttigieg is that he still has one. Most of his 18 rivals don’t.

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