Democrats’ latest presidential debate revealed a new reality candidates face just over six weeks before the Iowa caucuses: All roads to the nomination run directly through Pete Buttigieg.
For months, conflict within the Democratic primary had lurched forward haphazardly, with hits on Joe Biden falling flat and lines of attack among other candidates seeming to come and go quickly. But in Buttigieg, 2020 finally found its common denominator — and a common target for most everyone else on the debate stage Thursday night.
Buttigieg’s transformation into a piñata did not come simply because he has risen in polls of Iowa and New Hampshire. His position is unique because the imperative to stamp him out is so wide-ranging. Joe Biden occupies the party’s moderate lane, and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren appeal to progressives, but Buttigieg is threatening to all of them with his ideologically moderate platform but, demographically, progressive profile: young, gay and — as he will remind you repeatedly — not of Washington.
“He’s the linchpin,” said Sue Dvorsky, a former Iowa Democratic Party chairwoman who had endorsed Sen. Kamala Harris before she dropped out of the race. “He’s the linchpin because he’s in the middle.”
The South Bend, Ind., mayor doesn’t command much attention in national polls. But he’s running first in recent surveys of the first caucus state of Iowa and in second place in the first primary state of New Hampshire, according to the most recent Real Clear Politics average.
With the exception of Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York City mayor who is largely skipping the first four nominating states, every candidate outside of the top tier is relying on a breakout performance in Iowa to keep their campaigns afloat. That includes Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, another moderate whose pummeling of Buttigieg on Thursday offered new life to her flagging candidacy.
On Friday, she was scheduled to begin a bus tour in Iowa, with stops in 27 counties in the state.
“Clearly Klobuchar believes she needs to go after Pete” to improve her position in Iowa, said Douglas Herman, a Democratic strategist in Los Angeles. “He is also at the top of the moderate lane in Iowa, so Klobuchar has to beat him with those voters.”
Given the short time until Iowa and the high stakes of performing well there, Herman said Klobuchar “needs to move further. Hence the persistent attacks on Pete whenever she could get an elbow toss in.”
After the debate, Buttigieg offered the predictable assessment of the beating he took, telling CNN that attacks should be expected “when you’re doing well.” And Dave Nagle, a former congressman and Iowa state Democratic Party chairman, suggested Buttigieg is a victim of his own, possibly too-early success.
“It’s not a good thing to get hot in November, because you become a target,” Nagle said.
But it wasn’t just the downtrodden of the Democratic field turning on Buttigieg. For top-tier candidates, the imperative to attack one another has been relatively low for months — and for good reason. In a multi-candidate field, the aggressor doesn’t always benefit from dragging down another candidate. Biden, in particular, has largely refrained from punching down.
But Sanders and Warren, both far ahead of Buttigieg nationally yet locked in a tight battle with him in Iowa, are increasingly using Buttigieg as a foil.
Seizing on the location of a Buttigieg fundraiser in Napa Valley this past weekend — in what Warren called a “wine cave full of crystals” — Sanders and Warren both launched an extended debate-stage assault on Buttigieg over his fundraising. Even Andrew Yang piled on, saying that with universal basic income, his signature proposal, more women would run for office “because they don't have to go shake the money tree in the wine cave.”
The hits are likely to get only harder going forward, as Buttigieg himself suggested in a fundraising email on Friday.
“Last night, I participated in the final Democratic primary debate of the year,” he wrote. “If you watched, you saw the campaign you and I are building come under attack.”
Buttigieg went on to defend his fundraising, saying that while “lots of our competitors attacked the way we’re building this campaign … what they are failing to recognize is that we’re building a formidable organization. One that can take on Donald Trump and his allies — and win.”
Peter Leo, chairman of Carroll County Democrats in Iowa, who is backing Warren in the caucuses, claimed Buttigieg appeared unprepared and came off as “incredibly rehearsed and incredibly inauthentic” throughout much of the debate, after getting through the November debate without taking significant attacks.
“This was the guy who was my No. 2, and I don’t even recognize him anymore,” Leo said, adding that the “wine cave” is now planted firmly in the political lexicon.
Faiz Shakir, Sanders' campaign manager, said he expects Sanders’ campaign over the “next few weeks” to begin pushing its contrast with other Democrats more forcefully — “sharing why Biden and Buttigieg and Warren are not as ideally positioned as he is” to run against President Donald Trump.
Jeff Weaver, the longtime Sanders adviser, also suggested the campaign’s contrast effort will be broader than just Buttigieg. He noted that Sanders is running an ad in Iowa stressing that he is the only leading candidate running an entirely grassroots-funded campaign — distinguishing him not just from Biden and Buttigieg, but also Warren.
Still, Weaver, who wore a T-shirt labeled “PetesWineCave.com,” couldn’t resist jabbing at Buttigieg. Asked about Buttigieg’s comment in the debate that he was the poorest candidate on stage, he said, “He won’t be after this campaign, I’m sure.”
Dvorsky said the turn in the campaign should have been expected, with the caucuses now imminent.
“You know, nobody here is on their first date with … any of them,” she said. “So there’s no introductions here now. This is really about persuasion, and to do that, you’re going to have to do some contrast stuff.”
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated Buttigieg's average polling position in New Hampshire. He is in second place in the RealClearPolitics polling average there.