INDIANAPOLIS — When you factor in where Pete Buttigieg was a year ago — poised as a potential Dennis Kucinich or Alan Keyes of presidential politics – and where he is today, poised as a top-tier candidate after what appears to be a virtual tie in the Iowa caucuses (Buttigieg had a 26.2% to 26.1% lead over Bernie Sanders with 96.9% of precincts reporting at this writing), the pertinent question is whether the sky, or 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., will be his limit?
From a Hoosier perspective, “Mayor Pete” has already eclipsed the late Sens. Birch Bayh’s (13%) and Richard Lugar’s (4%) presidential campaigns in their 1976 and 1996 Iowa caucus runs. He has outlasted and out-raised Sen. Evan Bayh and Vice President Dan Quayle in their 2008 and 2000 presidential excursions.
“Official, verified caucus results from state of Iowa, they’re not complete but the results are the majority and they show our campaign in first place,” Buttigieg said at a rally at Laconia, N.H., minutes after the results from the Iowa caucus debacle began coming Wednesday. “We don’t know all of the numbers but we know this much, the campaign that started a year ago with four staff members, no name recognition, no money, just a big idea; a campaign that some said had no business even making this attempt, has taken its place at the front of this race to replace the current president.”
Buttigieg continued, “No matter what happens next, this much is undeniable: That fact represents an astonishing victory for this campaign, this candidacy and this vision you have all been a part of. This validates the message that connects the urban, the rural, and suburban communities, that we can reach out to Democrats, independents and even some future former Republicans ready to bring change to this country.”
Iowa was key in the inevitable “electability” question for Buttigieg. He needed to demonstrate he could win in a Midwestern state, and conspicuously targeting Republicans dovetailed into his emerging narrative that he can go toe-to-toe with President Trump.
Tuesday night’s Iowa meltdown essentially deprived the former South Bend mayor of the polling bump the caucus winner would get. But he overcame Sen. Bernie Sanders’s pitchfork brigades, stands to feast on moderate lane supporters of the swooning Joe Biden in the next few weeks, and faces the unprecedented wealth of a fellow former mayor in Michael Bloomberg.
Take into account the extensive ground game he has laid in the Super Tuesday state of California, and the notion that Buttigieg has the potential to become the first Hoosier to win a Democratic presidential nomination is not as far-fetched as it once seemed to be.
Buttigieg has already made history, becoming the first openly gay major party presidential contender to make it into the top tier campaigns. That he made his late Iowa campaign push in a series of Obama-to-Trump counties in mostly rural portions of the Hawkeye State is equally impressive and portends an evolving electorate. Buttigieg has targeted what he calls “future former Republicans,” who have the ability to vote in New Hampshire next Tuesday.
William Saletan writing in Slate, observed, “Several candidates, including Biden and Klobuchar, have promised to beat Trump by building a coalition that reaches beyond the left. But in Iowa, Buttigieg proved that he can put together that kind of coalition. He won decisively among caucusgoers who called themselves ‘somewhat liberal’ — a segment that represented more than 40% of attendees — and he tied Biden for the lead among moderates. Among independents, he trailed Sanders but outpolled Biden.”
New Hampshire is expected to be friendly territory for Vermont’s Sanders and Massachusetts’ Warren, but Sanders’ army of supporters did not create what many had projected to be a record caucus turnout. A WBZ/Boston Globe/Suffolk University tracking poll revealed Sanders continues to lead the field with 25%, but Buttigieg is closing in with a 19% showing, his best yet in this poll. Buttigieg is up 8% from last week. Biden dropped three points to 12%, and Warren is holding steady at 11%. Looking deeper into the crosstabs, Buttigieg appears to be siphoning voters away from Biden in a couple of key areas. He’s up by 4% among women while Biden is down by 4%, with a similar scenario among registered Democrats, a crucial demographic for Biden.
Nationally, Morning Consult tracking shows Buttigieg and Sanders moving up: Buttigieg going from 7% to 12% between Feb. 3-5 and Sanders from 22% to 25%, while Biden declined from 29% to 25%.
If Buttigieg answered some of the electability questions surrounding his candidacy, Biden fired this salvo at Sanders: “If Sen. Sanders is the nominee ... every candidate in our party will have to carry the label he’s given to himself, Democratic socialist. You’ve already seen what President Trump will do with that. Donald Trump is desperate to pin the socialist label of socialist, socialist, socialist, on our party. We can’t let him do that.” Biden also said of Buttigieg, “I have great respect for Mayor Pete and his service to this nation. But I do believe it’s a risk, to be just straight up with you, for this party to nominate someone who’s never held an office higher than mayor of a town of 100,000 people in Indiana.”
That didn’t work so well in Iowa.
The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com and the CrossroadsReport.com. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.