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Is Pete Buttigieg’s Surge Real Or A Mirage?

Pete Buttigieg is having a moment. The 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who would be the first openly gay president, is the “hottest candidate in the 2020 race right now,” according to CNN. If you believe The New York Times, he’s more popular in New York than the city’s own mayor, who is also reportedly mulling a presidential run. And the Associated Press reported that the crowds at Buttigieg’s campaign events in South Carolina were so large and loud that they threw him off his stump speech.

At first, I suspected that the “Buttigieg bump” was overblown — that the media was getting more interested in him, but actual voters mostly were not. But there’s actually good reason to believe that the interest in Buttigieg is pretty organic. He appears to have generated a lot of Google search interest relative to his media coverage and has attracted plenty of small donors. Buttigieg’s campaign said that in the 24 hours after his well-received performance in a CNN town hall on March 10, he raised about $600,000. A few days later, Buttigieg announced he had received donations from at least 65,000 people, which is one of the qualifications for getting invited to the first two Democratic primary debates. And his campaign said in an email to supporters on Monday that it had raised half a million dollars in each of two separate 24-hour periods last week.

The splashiest data point in support of the Buttigieg bump is an Emerson College poll conducted March 21-24 that gave him 11 percent of the vote in Iowa, putting him in third place there. This marks a sizable gain for “Mayor Pete,” as he had gotten 0 percent support in the pollster’s January survey. However, there is reason to be skeptical of Buttigieg’s impressive new number. For more than half of the respondents, Emerson didn’t randomize the order of the 14 candidates it asked about, which meant Buttigieg was always the first option. That matters because candidates listed first do have an advantage; ever been tempted to just press 1 in those overly long customer-service phone menus? That might have happened here for the 142 Democrats who took the poll by phone. (Another 107 took the poll online, where the choices were randomized.) The poll also had a small overall sample size (249 Democratic respondents) and high margin of error (+/-6.2 percentage points) — two more reasons to treat it with a grain of salt.

As it stands right now, no other pollster has shown anywhere near this kind of climb. For example, there is evidence of a Buttigieg bump in Morning Consult’s weekly polls of the national Democratic electorate, but it’s not nearly as big (and among respondents who live in early primary states,1 there was no bump at all). In Morning Consult’s poll conducted March 4-10, just 38 percent of respondents nationwide had heard of Buttigieg. In the most recent poll, conducted March 18-24, 45 percent had. That was one of the biggest increases in name recognition of any candidate. Yet at the same time, Buttigieg only increased his national vote share in the horse-race portion of the poll from 1 percent to 2 percent. (Among respondents in early primary states, he stayed steady at 1 percent.) And most other pollsters have yet to register a Buttigieg bump at all. In a pair of high-quality national polls conducted after his town hall — one by CNN and the other by FOX News — Buttigieg registered at just 1 percent. A Quinnipiac poll released this morning found Buttigieg tied with Elizabeth Warren for fifth place, both polling at 4 percent. But we don’t have a previous Quinnipiac poll to compare it to.

Overall, there is some evidence that Buttigieg may be breaking out with some Democratic voters, but it’s easy to overstate his momentum. Remember: You Google a person because you want to learn more about them, not necessarily because you’re already sold on voting for them. And as most polls show us, Buttigieg still has a long way to go before he’s vying with the likes of former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders for the overall lead.

From ABC News:

Pete Buttigieg on why he wants to face off against President Trump in 2020

UPDATE (March 28, 2019, 8 a.m.): This article has been updated to add a Quinnipiac poll released Thursday morning.


  1. Which Morning Consult defines as Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.