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So … About That Buttigieg Surge?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): After the fourth Democratic debate in October, Pete Buttigieg hit 13 percent in a Suffolk/USA Today Iowa poll, coming in third, while Amy Klobuchar got her second qualifying poll for the November debate. And a FiveThirtyEight average of polls in Iowa since August actually showed Buttigieg had been overperforming there and in New Hampshire even before the fourth debate. So what do we make of this new post-debate narrative that maybe this isn’t just a two-candidate race, and there’s more potential for candidates like Buttigieg and Klobuchar to break out of the lower tiers of candidates. Do folks buy this? Are we headed for another Buttigieg surge?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I think the narrative is mostly bullshit. Just want to get that on the record nice and early.

sarahf: 🔥

So why is it b.s.?

natesilver: Like, it’s possible he’ll surge, and I certainly think he had a good debate, and he’s probably gained a point or so, which isn’t nothing! But to say there’s been a big Buttigieg surge is so far from reality that, if you simply glance at a table of polls, it almost feels like gaslighting. He’s maybe gained a point or so in national polls.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): It’s definitely possible that the media wanted something new to talk about for the 2020 Democratic primary, and this gives them an opportunity to do that.

sarahf: But Nate, I don’t think anyone is going to argue that this is a big surge — or at least I’m not. But I do think his standing in Iowa or New Hampshire is much higher than what you would anticipate given where he is in the national polls.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, I found that Buttigieg was polling at about 9 percent in Iowa before the September debate and then at 11 percent after that debate. There haven’t been enough polls to see whether he’s really crept up a little bit more after the October debate, but it’s definitely possible.

Buttigieg was close to third in Iowa in Sept. polls

Average of Iowa polls for the five leading Democratic presidential candidates, before and after the third debate

Poll Average
Candidate Before Third Debate After Third Debate Change
Elizabeth Warren 21.3 23.0 +1.7
Joe Biden 24.7 20.3 -4.3
Bernie Sanders 17.3 12.0 -5.3
Pete Buttigieg 9.3 11.3 +2.0
Kamala Harris 8.3 5.3 -3.0

Our “before third debate” average includes three polls taken from Aug. 1 to Sept. 11; the “after third debate” average also includes three polls. We excluded head-to-head and open-ended polling questions.

Source: Polls

natesilver: But his 13 percent in that USA Today/Suffolk poll is actually very typical of how he’s already been polling in Iowa. He’s had a lot of polls, both now and during his previous peak in the late spring/early summer, where he polled above 15 percent, in fact.

sarahf: Right, but how should we interpret his higher standing in Iowa or New Hampshire?

Is that meaningful at this point?

natesilver: He’s a good candidate for those states because (1) They’re really white, and his supporters are really white; (2) He’s got enough money to build out a good ground game; (3) He’s got a regional advantage in Iowa by being one of the few Midwsterners in the race.

So I take his chances in Iowa pretty seriously! I just don’t think anything much has changed about them over the past week.

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): I take Nate’s point about national polls, but an unexpected showing in Iowa seems like the kind of thing that could shape this race, especially if Joe Biden tanks and there’s an opportunity for someone else to wrestle the moderate mantle away.

natesilver: The scenarios where Iowa is like: 1) Buttigieg at 25 percent; 2) Elizabeth Warren at 23 percent; 3) Biden at 19 percent; 4) Bernie Sanders at 15 percent are pretty interesting for what happens next. (These scenarios are basically what you’d get if you take the current polling averages for each candidate, but Buttigieg gains another 10 percent.)

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, a Buttigieg first or even second-place finish would be a curveball, based on what we see right now.

natesilver: I don’t know, Geoff, that a second-place finish would matter all that much. He’s in it to win it, baby.

geoffrey.skelley: But if it were Warren-Buttigieg-Biden-Sanders or something, that could give him a shot at grabbing the moderate mantle.

And since the early states are so much about expectations: Are you meeting them? Exceeding them? Falling short? Buttigieg could use a strong result in Iowa to strengthen his long-term position in the race.

julia_azari: Yeah, if neither Warren nor Biden can really turn themselves into true consensus candidates, and Buttigieg emerges as an alternative, a second-place finish for him could be big.

But the order matters. If Biden finishes first and Warren third, I’m less convinced this is big for Buttigieg. Beating Biden is much more significant IMO.

But I may be overemphasizing lanes today. My mentality about this primary shifts regularly.

natesilver: Is it significant, though, if Buttigeig narrowly beats Biden in a state that basically only has white people, when Biden crushes him among nonwhite voters?

geoffrey.skelley: Biden’s problem, though, is that Iowa and New Hampshire vote first, and if he has a really poor showing there that could hurt his standing in a state like Nevada or South Carolina.

sarahf: That was my question, too, Nate. How much does it really matter for Buttigieg’s overall chances if he’s doing well in Iowa and New Hampshire, and not in, say, South Carolina? And suppose he can’t outright win Iowa or New Hampshire. Who might his performance hurt most if he continues to eat up a significant share of support? Warren? Biden?

natesilver: If Iowa is 1) Warren; 2) Buttigieg; 3) Biden, then… that’s mostly good news for Warren, right?

It’s very good news for Warren, in fact.

geoffrey.skelley: I would think so. In that scenario, Sanders is very damaged and Biden nearly as much. I don’t think Biden can finish below the top 2 in Iowa without losing a lot of credibility regarding his electability pitch.

natesilver: Yeah, it’s pretty much her perfect scenario. Because it does become debatable who’s ahead in the moderate “lane” (I KNOW THAT LANES ARE A COMPLICATED CONCEPT READERS!!!!!), whereas she clearly wins the liberal lane.

sarahf: But can Warren and Buttigieg both finish in the top 2 if they’re appealing to largely the same kinds of voters? Seems unlikely, no?

natesilver: Buttigieg is interesting in that he’s more or less explicitly running as a moderate (or at least he is now; whether he was before is a matter of some debate) but his constituency (i.e., college-educated white people) overlaps a LOT with Warren’s.

And Warren’s polls in Iowa haven’t been spectacular lately, and one reason for that almost HAS to be Buttigieg since you’d think it would be a good state for her.

geoffrey.skelley: So maybe this is all secretly good news for Biden!

natesilver: In Morning Consult’s polling, slightly more Buttigieg voters have Warren rather than Biden as their second choice, even though Biden is ahead of Warren in their overall polling.

So it could be good news for Biden, Geoff. At the very least, it’s ambiguous news if it complicates Warren’s path to winning Iowa.

p.s. I should probably point out, as I’m fond of doing, that the media takes a lot of things to be bad news for Biden, but he’s still in first place in national polls and his standing hasn’t really declined at all. His post-debate polls have been pretty decent, in fact.

julia_azari: One thing that’s hard to unpack here is that even though Buttigieg shares constituents with Warren that are similar demographically, he’s actually trying to ideologically position himself more as a competitor to Biden. His questions for Warren on health care during the October debate reflect this in particular, so I think it’s hard to know who Buttigieg will affect more — Biden or Warren? Is one possibility that it’s a wash, and maybe, at this stage, it affects other candidates more?

natesilver: I mean, there are quite a few other candidates that have an Iowa-focused strategy. Klobuchar for one.

And Harris is “moving to f***ing Iowa” or whatever, even though I’m not sure that’s a smart strategy for her campaign.

sarahf: But, surely, if we don’t buy the narrative that Buttigieg is experiencing a surge, we can’t possibly argue that Klobuchar is, right? I mean she did hit 3 percent in that Suffolk poll, which helps her get a qualifying poll under her belt for November.

But that’s not like… great news for her, right?

geoffrey.skelley: No. Three percent is nothing to write home about if a key part of your strategy is predicated on winning or being competitive in the state where you’re polling at 3 percent.

natesilver: I mean they’ve both maybe gained a point or two? Neither of them is really surging, I think is my point. He’s quite a bit more viable than she is, though, if he’s gone from 12 to 13 and she’s gone from 2 to 3.5 or whatever.

geoffrey.skelley: I guess it’s possible that more voters will tune into Klobuchar now. But I think it would take the oft-mentioned Biden collapse for her to get more traction, and even then, the other leading candidates might be able to fill that void and they already have a lot more resources.

natesilver: One thing that I think is pretty hard to tell is how much of the “other candidates are surging narrative!” is based on reporters being bored and just sort of inventing a narrative out of thin air — which can absolutely happen sometimes — versus reflecting dissatisfaction among certain Democratic activists or establishment types with the current front-runners.

This article, for instance, is very strange, since it talks to a bunch of people who apparently think Hillary Clinton or Mike Bloomberg of John Kerry should jump into the race, which is the sort of thing that only people living in a “Morning Joe” bubble could ever possibly think was a good idea.

(p.s. If you’re going to resurrect a past failed Democratic nominee, why not Al Gore?!?! He’s five years younger than Biden!)

julia_azari: I bet Michael Dukakis is flexible. He could get someone to cover his classes.

geoffrey.skelley: But there may be some actual concern among activist types. FiveThirtyEight contributors Seth Masket and Dave Peterson recently wrote on the site that a fair share of activists and voters were concerned about having Biden or Sanders as the potential nominee.

julia_azari: The other thing about Buttigieg, thinking about Nate’s point about polling and viability, is that I can see a factional strategy for him. Like, could Buttigieg build a 30 percent type coalition of reform-minded people who like how he talks about fixing institutions and being pragmatic, along with moderates who don’t warm to Klobuchar and prefer him to Biden in the end? Maybe.

There’s potential for Buttigieg to capitalize on people angry about “the system.”

natesilver: Yeah, and I suspect those positions are slightly more popular among actual voters than they are in The Discourse on Twitter and so on. Obama actually harnessed a lot of that “post-partisan” narrative to his advantage.

julia_azari: Yes, that’s a perfect example of the kind of appeal I’m talking about.

But it’s also possible that a substantial number of voters are over that — I just don’t know. But I am seeing evidence in research and surveys that people are suspicious of parties and party elites and party conflict.

Weirdly, though, no one has really adopted the anti-party stance in a full-throated way in this primary (other than someone like Andrew Yang, who is a whole other chat IMO).

sarahf: I’m less sure about Buttigieg’s appeal as a candidate who can take on “the system,” but repositioning himself as a moderate and pushing Warren on Medicare for All has been smart politics.

julia_azari: Yeah, and as I said earlier, Buttigieg’s fate may be more dependent on what happens to Biden than any thing he does.

Perhaps I am falling into the trap Nate describes as being a media person who discounts Biden; I just see him as a candidate with a lot of liabilities.

natesilver: I mean, nobody would say Biden is the world’s best candidate. But he’s been leading the polls for months! And some prediction markets still only give him a 20 percent chance to win!

Given that there’s a lot we don’t know about how the primaries work — that’s one lesson from 2016, in fact — I think you have to be a bit more deferential to what voters are saying.

Along with also considering other paradigms.

julia_azari: That’s fair. A lot of what went wrong with predicting the 2016 Republican race came down to discounting and ignoring some pretty obvious data for months on end.

(I was no less guilty of this than anyone else.)

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, Biden isn’t polling that differently from where he was in the first half of 2019, and he had roughly a 40 percent shot of winning the nomination back in July, based on historical polling.

Although this is probably a good time to note that the sample size of competitive presidential primaries is not that big! Or the sample size of presidential elections, period. So maybe Biden’s chances are better than 40 percent; maybe worse. Still, he’s almost certainly being underestimated.

sarahf: Sure, but in that same piece, Geoff, you highlighted the fact that given Buttigieg’s lower name recognition, we shouldn’t entirely write him off either. So I’d say while the media might be underselling Biden’s chances, it’s possible they haven’t been paying too much attention to Buttigieg’s performance in Iowa and New Hampshire and how that could change the race if he continues to perform well there.

geoffrey.skelley: Oh definitely. That analysis looked at national polling, so yeah, a strong start in Iowa and New Hampshire could move the needle for Buttigieg, maybe weaken Biden (or someone else) and shake up the race. After all, Buttigieg still isn’t as well-known as the other leading candidates — Morning Consult’s latest polling found 62 percent of primary voters had a favorable or unfavorable view of him, versus over 90 percent for Biden and Sanders and 82 percent for Warren. So that suggests he has potential for further growth among those who still aren’t that familiar with him.

natesilver: Yeah, none of this is to suggest that Buttigieg doesn’t have a path.

He has one of the clearer paths, after Warren, Biden and probably Sanders.

We should probably talk about a couple of concerns, though: 1) How plausible is it that he can expand his support among nonwhite voters? 2) How big of a concern are his lack of traditional credentials? 3) Are Democrats ready to nominate a gay candidate?

julia_azari: On question 1, I’m not seeing much evidence that he can, at least with black voters. But one other question for me, Nate, is whether it makes sense to think of Buttigieg as the fourth-place contender when Harris and he aren’t that far apart in the national polls?

natesilver: It’s a good question. I guess the answer is that 1) Harris doesn’t have a strong toehold in any of the early states; 2) She’s been losing ground in the polls and making a lot of questionable strategic decisions for months now.

But if there are party elites who are dissatisfied with both Warren and Biden, it’s surprising that Harris isn’t getting a longer look.

sarahf: Do you think they’ll look at Buttigieg, instead? Seems unlikely, given his lack of traditional credentials, as you mentioned.

geoffrey.skelley: Democrats have traditionally cared more about experience than Republicans do when it comes to their candidates, so that might be a problem for point No. 2. A Morning Consult poll from March found, for instance, that 66 percent of Democrats said that having “decades of political experience” was very important or somewhat important, while just 27 percent said it wasn’t that important.

julia_azari: That’s another interesting question. He still lacks real traction in the endorsement primary, to the extent anyone is invested in that anymore.

sarahf: On the subject of voting for an openly gay candidate, though — nearly 20 percent of Democrats still aren’t on board with the idea, which is honestly a lot higher than I would have thought.

What types of candidates would Americans NOT vote for?

Share of respondents to an April survey who said they would not vote for a “generally well-qualified” presidential candidate from their own party if the candidate had each of the following characteristics

Democrats Independents Republicans Overall
Socialist 24% 48% 80% 51%
Atheist 28 33 56 39
Older than 70 35 37 37 37
Muslim 14 26 62 33
Younger than 40 21 28 34 28
Gay or lesbian 17 18 39 24
Evangelical Christian 27 20 6 18
Jewish 5 9 5 7
Woman 3 6 9 6
Catholic 4 6 3 5
Hispanic 3 3 8 5
Black 1 4 5 3

Source: Gallup

natesilver: On the other hand, being the gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana gives Buttigieg sort of an underdog quality that’s important to his appeal.

Like, if he was the straight mayor of Indianapolis, would anyone be talking about him?

julia_azari: That’s a good point. It is the underdog quality. I also think that publicly demonstrating their tolerance toward diversity is an important part of some Democrats’ identities, and having a gay candidate helps affirm that. So it might help him with some voters in the party even as it hurts with others.

natesilver: I do wonder with Buttigieg if there’s sort of an almost fairy-tale notion to what his candidacy represents that could help him win Iowa, but then not hold up to scrutiny particularly well, once voters gave him a longer look. No offense to South Bend, which is an awful lot like the town where I grew up (East Lansing, Michigan). But if the mayor of East Lansing was suddenly a major presidential contender, I’d find that pretty surprising!

julia_azari: Yeah. There are a lot of questions about how much voters can and should care about experience. But I can imagine a scenario in which Democrats are becoming more invested in symbolism — like underdog politics — and less in governance. I also think, well, if Trump is president, are we really going to be overly invested in experience? And I’m not sure I find this compelling, but Buttigieg, along with 50 mayors who endorsed him, makes the case that that kind of executive experience is better preparation than being a backbench legislator.

natesilver: I’m not sure I find it compelling, either, but it’s perhaps slightly more compelling in a primary where there are a conspicuous lack of governors.

geoffrey.skelley: To sort of sum up, I think Buttigieg still has a shot at winning the nomination. Not a big chance, but far more than I would’ve anticipated given his profile as a candidate. He’s polling well in Iowa and New Hampshire, and if he gets good results in them, he might find himself among the last group of competitive candidates for the nomination. So I’d say he’s about as well-positioned as he could be, given everything else.

natesilver: Yeah, Geoff: It can both be true that Buttigieg has a real shot and that the recent media narrative about his surging is mostly bullshit! Those aren’t mutually exclusive at all! It’s a long primary, and the media sometimes gets bored and starts reporting out stories that have been there all along, but which got ignored earlier for whatever reason.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”