What's behind the Buttigieg bounce?

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 75 days until the Iowa caucuses and 349 days until the 2020 election.

In the life of a presidential campaign, there are polling blips, bumps and bounces. Only some of them signal a real shift in the race. 

But right now, as the Democratic presidential candidates descend on Atlanta for Wednesday’s debate, Pete Buttigieg is enjoying the most energetic surge in the polls of any candidate so far this cycle.

Joe Biden jumped about 10 points after he announced his candidacy in April. Kamala Harris immediately doubled her support after taking on Biden’s record on racial issues during the first debate, in June. Elizabeth Warren slowly, steadily climbed from about 8 percent to about 27 percent between June and October. But all three contenders have since lost ground, with Biden reverting back to his pre-announcement average, Harris falling even further and Warren slipping under the 20 percent mark for the first time in months.    

Buttigieg’s bounce seems different. Unlike Biden’s and Harris’s, it’s not linked to a splashy, fleeting event. Unlike Warren’s, it was quick — occurring over a few weeks, not a few months. It’s also concentrated in two states, which happen to be the ones that matter the most at this stage: Iowa and New Hampshire. 

Pete Buttigieg greets people in Atlanta on Monday. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

And it’s big.

On Oct. 11, Buttigieg was averaging 11 points in Iowa — good for fourth place behind Warren, Biden and Bernie Sanders. Today he is averaging more than twice that number, which puts him in first place by 4 percent. The latest Des Moines Register/CNN survey — the state’s most reliable sounding — has Buttigieg at 25 percent, about 10 points ahead of everybody else. 

The story is similar in New Hampshire. At the start of November, the South Bend, Ind., mayor was averaging 9 percent or so; Biden, Warren and Sanders were all above 20 percent. Today, less than three weeks later, Buttigieg has more than doubled his average support to 18.7 percent, surpassing Sanders and surging into a near tie with Warren (20.7 percent) and Biden (19 percent). The new St. Anselm poll shows Buttigieg at 25 percent, up 15 points from the college’s September survey.

Nationally, Buttigieg still lags in fourth, roughly 10 points behind Warren and Sanders and 20 points behind Biden. But if he wins Iowa and New Hampshire — which today’s polls suggest he could — his momentum would likely boost him elsewhere and put him in prime position to secure the nomination.

Pete Buttigieg speaks in Atlanta. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

So what’s behind the Buttigieg bounce? And can it last?

Three factors explain the mayor’s rapid rise. The first is timing. For months, Biden was the primary’s undisputed frontrunner. But a series of missteps on race and a few shaky debate performances — plus anxieties about how President Trump might weaponize the former vice president’s involvement in Ukraine — created an opening for someone else. In September, Warren started filling that void with her disciplined messaging about Wall Street and Washington corruption and her wonky plans for every imaginable issue; by early October, she had caught up to Biden in the national polls. Yet as soon as she did, Democrats began debating Medicare for All and getting second thoughts about whether Warren was too far left to beat Trump, and her poll numbers started to sink. By November, voters seemed to be searching for another savior — one who was both electable and inspiring. Enter the 37-year-old gay Rhodes scholar and war veteran. 

That brings us to the second factor behind Buttigieg’s bounce: strategy. On paper, Buttigieg doesn’t necessarily look like the most electable or inspiring contender. But starting in late summer, he pivoted from his initial message — bold generational change — to one that was specifically designed to exploit Biden’s and Warren’s weaknesses and reposition himself as the Goldilocks option for wavering Dems. “If you want the left-most possible candidate, you’ve got a clear choice,” he started saying. “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.” The rebranding effort culminated in a high-octane October debate performance at which he repeatedly attacked Warren on Medicare for All while pitching himself as a pragmatic Midwestern moderate. Afterward, polls showed that he had gained the most ground with voters.  

The third and final factor behind Buttigieg’s bump is money. After two stellar fundraising quarters, the mayor entered the homestretch with more cash on hand ($23.4 million) than anyone except Warren ($25.7 million) and Sanders ($33.7 million). (For comparison, Biden had only $9 million in the bank at the end of Q3.) And Buttigieg hasn’t been afraid to spend it. Not only does he boast more field offices and staffers in Iowa and New Hampshire than anyone else, he has also dropped more money on TV ads in Iowa ($2.3 million) than any of his top-tier rivals, and more than any other candidate, period, except billionaire Tom Steyer.

From left, Democratic presidential hopefuls Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Tom Steyer, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren. (Photo: Bridget Bennett/AFP via Getty Images)

“I am ready to gather up an American majority that is … done with division,” Buttigieg says in the ad that’s been airing most often, in an implicit swipe at the pugnacious Warren. “I will never allow us to get so wrapped up in the fighting that we start to think fighting is the point. The point is what lies on the other side of the fight.”

It’s too early to say if Buttigieg’s bounce will prove more lasting than Biden’s, Harris’s or Warren’s. A strong debate Wednesday would go a long way toward shoring it up, and perhaps helping it spread beyond Iowa and New Hampshire. 

But the gathering in Atlanta will also represent the first time Buttigieg has taken the stage as a frontrunner, which automatically makes him a prime target for his rivals, who will have plenty of vulnerabilities to exploit. Many of these involve his record on race. South Bend has been rocked by racial controversies on his watch, and he is currently mired in another racial controversy in South Carolina, where his campaign recently promoted his “Douglass Plan” for African-Americans with a stock photo of a Kenyan woman and a misleading list of 400 black supporters, 62 percent of whom turned out to be white. His support among blacks, a crucial Democratic constituency, is negligible — he’s polling at zero percent among black voters in South Carolina. His political record, as one rival recently put it,  amounts to winning an election “in a college town that last voted for a Republican in 1964,” and he lost his only run for statewide office, a 2010 bid for Indiana state treasurer. His résumé includes a stint with the business consulting firm McKinsey & Co., hardly an icon for Democratic primary voters. His recently reinvented campaign message leaves him open to the charge, recently leveled by rival Julián Castro, of “going by the old playbook of following the focus groups, going by what political consultants tell you.” And while he’s been attacking Warren’s plans, he’s done little to explain how he would pay for his own.

In short, Buttigieg is about to get the frontrunner treatment, with plenty of time left before Iowa. Two months before the 2004 caucuses, John Kerry, the eventual winner and Democratic nominee, was 14 points behind Howard Dean in the polls; four years later, Barack Obama was 7 points behind Hillary Clinton. The question for Buttigieg is, can he handle the heat — and hold on until Feb. 3?

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