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South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is raising cash for the Democratic primary season at a clip expected of a front-runner, but his poll numbers are exposing a rift between donors and voters.
As second-quarter fundraising numbers continue to trickle in, the $24.8 million haul Buttigieg's campaign announced last week looks even more impressive, outpacing a former vice president and several United States senators.
The Midwestern mayor, though, hasn't kept up in polling. A CNN/SSRS poll conducted June 28-30, just after the June debates, showed him in a distant fifth place among voters, at 4 percent. And that's not an outlier. Other polls taken after the debates show similar results.
Even worse news for his campaign, the CNN poll shows his support among African American voters, which had been ticking upward in some quarters, is back near 0 percent in the aftermath of the June 16 South Bend police shooting, when a white officer shot a black man.
It’s not time for Buttigieg's campaign to panic, of course. His fundraising has provided the resources for him to stay in the race and continue to build name recognition, which as a small-city mayor lagged that of other nationally known candidates.
Donors say he can make a believer of many who hear him speak. Their support locked him into the second round of Democratic debates later this month and made him one of just a few so far to qualify for the third round, scheduled for September, giving him a better chance to make a name for himself onstage.
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But at some point this year, and sooner rather than later, pundits say, Buttigieg’s poll numbers will need to tick upward for him to remain a viable candidate.
“I think he has tremendously excited the LGBT community all across the country,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “This is a historical candidacy, and the way they look at it, Buttigieg can’t lose. He’s standing up for a marginalized community and they’re all investing in the future.
“The donors have stars in their eyes, but money does not determine the race. Just ask Jeb Bush. Ask Hillary (Clinton). It just doesn’t happen that way.”
Buttigieg outraises Biden, Sanders, Harris, Warren
Donors clearly like what they are seeing and hearing from Buttigieg.
Buttigieg reported raising $24.8 million from more than 294,000 donors in the second quarter, the most money of any candidate who had announced a total as of July 8.
That’s more than front-runner Joe Biden, who reported raising $21.5 million, although he did declare his candidacy nearly a month into the quarter. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts reported raising $19.1 million for the quarter. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont reported raising $18 million in new money, plus $6 million he transferred, and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California reported raising $12 million.
Campaign finance numbers are due Monday, but the campaigns have been releasing preliminary figures.
Buttigieg's dollars, though, aren't adding up to as much support from voters at this point.
In the CNN national poll, Biden led with 22 percent, followed by Harris at 17 percent, Warren at 15 percent and Sanders at 14 percent. Buttigieg led the next tier of candidates, at 4 percent. Conducted June 28-30 among a sample of 1,613 respondents, the poll has a margin of error of 3 percent.
Both Harris and Warren have seen their poll numbers go up since the June debates, while Biden and Sanders have dropped. Buttigieg, who like Harris and Warren was praised by pundits for his performance, has remained about even.
Donors say they are confident voters will come around when they get to know Buttigieg. And they point out he's generally been doing better in Iowa, home of the first nominating contest, than he has nationally.
Kevin Johnson, a West Point graduate who works in renewable energy, held a fundraiser for Buttigieg last week at the East Bank Club in Chicago. He said the roughly 170 people who attended included a range of donors, from those who gave $25 to those maxing out at $2,800.
Johnson, who also supported Buttigieg’s 2017 run for Democratic National Committee chairman, said the response among donors who hear Buttigieg has been fantastic. He said it’s important to remember Buttigieg was a virtual unknown just a few months ago and he just needs the resources to deliver his message to more voters.
“His message is resonating tremendously,” Johnson said. “I was fortunate enough to bring to the event several young veterans of color like myself who were very eager to meet Pete. He graciously talked to every one of those veterans.”
Johnson, who is black, said Buttigieg knows he needs to continue to meet with people, and especially African Americans, where they live and work.
“He understands he has to earn voters’ support," Johnson said.
Chicago businessman and Democratic activist John Atkinson said the campaign is working to build Buttigieg’s name recognition and engagement.
“I do expect him to rise, but I’m not concerned about it at this stage of the game,” Atkinson said. “I don’t think you really need to worry about polling until January.”
Atkinson, a noted LGBT activist, first donated to Buttigieg because he’s the first openly gay Democratic presidential candidate. In the past few months, though, Atkinson has become a major backer of his campaign, hosting several fundraisers in Chicago, including one July 3.
“I brought with me to the event a gentleman who is in his 80s, (he's) a lawyer and a Biden guy,” Atkinson said. “I said, 'Come and listen to him, be my guest at this event.' Pete spoke for about 15 or 20 minutes, took questions and my friend looked at me and said, ‘Now I get it and I’m going to do whatever I can. This guy needs to be president.’
“That’s what happens when he’s given the opportunity to share his approach and his intellect,” Atkinson said.
Buttigieg's campaign said his investment team launched in the first quarter with three people — when he raised $7 million — and has grown to 28 people. Anthony Mercurio, who worked on Hillary Clinton's last campaign, leads the team.
Buttigieg held about 70 events in the second quarter, according to his campaign. That includes more than 20 "grass roots" events, like those hosted by Atkinson and Johnson, starting at about $25 a pop. Buttigieg has been travelling all over to raise that money, including Minneapolis, Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Miami, Washington, D.C., and New York.
In all, 54 percent of people who go to those events are new to the campaign. They draw up to about 1,500 people each, according to the campaign, and Buttigieg usually talks for around 20 minutes, takes questions and shakes hands.
September debates could make a difference
Buttigieg will have another chance to rise in the polls at the next round of debates, July 30-31 in Detroit, which will be similar to June’s debates with as many as 10 candidates per night.
His better chance to emerge may come in September, when the DNC is requiring candidates to have 130,000 individual donors and to hit at least 2 percent in the polls in the early nominating states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
The Associated Press reports that, so far, Buttigieg, Biden, Sanders, Warren and Harris have qualified.
Other candidates clearly are beginning to worry. For instance, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey took to social media to ask for $1 donations, even if donors prefer another candidate, he explains, so he can qualify for those debates. Fellow Democrats Tulsi Gabbard and Marianne Williamson have made similar pleas.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, of California, dropped out of the race Monday afternoon.
Andy Downs, director at the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics, said Buttigieg exceeding expectations in fundraising but not in polling is OK for now, but will become more of a problem as the first nominating contests approach.
“Money is more important today than scoring high in polling,” Downs said. “I’d love to say, really polling shouldn’t matter until 2020, but we know that’s not the way it is any longer. We’re in the middle of 2019, and we’re already talking about an election more than a year away.
“By the September debates, he’s going to have to show improvement in polling. If he’s still stuck around 5 percent instead of moving into the low double digits, then people are going to start saying, ‘OK there is a small constituency that backs him, they are throwing money behind him, but it’s not translating into votes.’”
Call IndyStar reporter Chris Sikich at 317-444-6036. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisSikich.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Donors love Pete Buttigieg. Voters aren't sure.