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The Buttigieg Bump Is Fading, But He Could Surge Again

No one has ever ascended from mayor to president in one fell swoop, but Pete Buttigieg is trying to change that. And from mid-March to mid-April, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor’s position in the race significantly improved — he surged in the polls and garnered a sizable number of donors, enough to easily meet both the polling and donor requirements for participating in the first two Democratic primary debates.

While Buttigieg’s upward trajectory in the polls has seemingly halted and he looks to have settled in at around 6 percent, down from a peak of 8 percent, that’s still a big jump for a candidate who started the race polling at 0 percent. So here is a closer look at Buttigieg’s rise and how he compares to other 2020 candidates, plus an idea of what this could mean for him moving forward, since he’s still relatively unknown.

It all started following a March 10 CNN presidential town hall, when Buttigieg really caught fire. You can see voters responding to him in the itemized donations to his campaign, which spiked the day of the event and continued to skyrocket through the end of the month.

And it wasn’t just Buttigieg’s fundraising numbers that took off: The share of Democrats who knew enough about him to form an opinion of him — found by adding together the share who said they had a favorable opinion and the share who said they had an unfavorable opinion — has also risen precipitously. At the start of February, around 20 percent of Democrats had an opinion of Buttigieg, but by the beginning of May, that figure was above 50 percent.

Now, Buttigieg isn’t alone in this regard. Most candidates have experienced at least some uptick since January in the number of voters who have an opinion about them, unless they were already familiar to almost all voters (like former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders). For example, Sen. Kamala Harris announced her presidential bid on Jan. 21, and her average familiarity among voters rose from around 50 percent in early January to almost 70 percent in late February. But as a relatively unknown candidate, Buttigieg had a lot of room to grow, so we can clearly see the impact of that CNN town hall in his numbers. Around mid-March, the total number of voters who had an opinion of him shot up, growing much faster than the bump he got when he launched his presidential exploratory committee in late January.

And in Buttigieg’s case, this uptick in familiarity was significant because he gained a fair amount of support as people became more familiar with him. As the chart below shows, the share of voters who said they were planning to vote for Buttigieg increased by 7 points from mid-March (when his support was about 1 percent) to mid-April (about 8 percent).

This represents a pretty dramatic rise, but Buttigieg isn’t alone in his polling surge. Harris and Sen. Bernie Sanders also had notable increases in their survey numbers around the time of their campaign announcements. And now it appears that Biden is enjoying his own polling bump following his entrance into the race. Nonetheless, those candidates weren’t polling at 0 percent like Buttigieg was. But now the Indiana mayor finds himself getting around the same amount of support as former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a development that few people would have bet on just a couple of months ago. Buttigieg’s numbers have dipped slightly in the past couple of weeks, but that could be a side effect of Biden entering the race — Sanders and other candidates have also experienced a slide in their numbers since Biden announced he was running on April 25.

As Vox noted last month, Buttigieg has made himself incredibly accessible to the media, which in turn has helped grow his profile, especially in the wake of the CNN town hall. But now Biden is capturing a ton of media attention, to the detriment of his Democratic opponents. And as we know from past elections, media coverage is an influential part of the “invisible primary” — the period before voting begins, when donors, the media and party operatives are the biggest influencers of who leads the presidential nomination contest. Free airtime for a candidate can be the equivalent of millions of dollars in advertising, and it has helped Buttigieg attract support and donors.

It’s impossible to say what will come next for Buttigieg. Maybe his support has peaked, or maybe he will go on to new heights. There is evidence that Democrats really do like him — among people who had an opinion of him, that opinion was positive for about 4 out of 5 respondents, according to an average of three recent national surveys.1

Buttigieg is well-liked. But he’s still not super well known.

Average of favorability ratings among Democratic voters in three recent national polls

Candidate Avg. Share with opinion avg. favorability favorability among those with opinion
Joe Biden 91.0% 75.0% 82.4%
Kamala Harris 67.0 53.7 80.1
Pete Buttigieg 55.0 44.0 80.0
Elizabeth Warren 77.3 61.0 78.9
Bernie Sanders 91.3 71.7 78.5
Beto O’Rourke 63.7 49.3 77.5
Cory Booker 60.3 46.7 77.3
Julian Castro 47.0 34.7 73.8
Jay Inslee 30.0 21.7 72.2
Amy Klobuchar 49.0 34.7 70.7
Kirsten Gillibrand 53.0 37.3 70.4
Andrew Yang 32.3 21.3 66.0
John Hickenlooper 32.3 20.7 63.9
John Delaney 26.0 16.3 62.8
Tim Ryan 34.0 20.0 58.8
Tulsi Gabbard 34.7 18.7 53.8
Seth Moulton 23.0 12.3 53.6

Data based on the most recent surveys from three pollsters who tested most or all Democratic candidates. All conducted since April 26, 2019.

Includes all candidates FiveThirtyEight currently considers “major” who were tested in all three polls.

Sources: The Economist/YouGov, HarrisX, Morning Consult

Overall, 80 percent of people who have an opinion of Buttigieg view him favorably, which puts him near the top of Democratic field. Moreover, only about half of Democratic voters have formed an opinion of him, which is far lower than the number for some of the other candidates with high favorability ratings, and that could mean Buttigieg has a higher ceiling for potential growth.

As we explored in our threepart series on early presidential primary polls, lesser-known candidates don’t tend to get much backing because not that many people know about them. But if a lesser-known aspirant is getting some solid support, that could indicate that they will do well once they are better known. Buttigieg has already surged once, but if he becomes better known while maintaining his high favorability percentage, he could surge again.



From ABC News:


Footnotes

  1. Polls conducted since April 26 that asked respondents their opinion of the Democratic candidates. The polls were the most recent surveys released by HarrisX, Morning Consult and The Economist/YouGov. Those pollsters were chosen because they ask about a large number of candidates.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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