Is Buttigieg-mentum really a thing? Probably not

Is Buttigieg-mentum really a thing? Probably not
Pete Buttigieg/Twitter

"‘The new candidate of the young elite’: Buttigieg battles Biden and Bloomberg for the center lane," reads a headline in Politico. Yesterday, The Los Angeles Times proclaimed, "Pete Buttigieg outlasts the pundits by emerging as the alternative to Biden."  But that last one was odd as it seems that pundits and political reporters really want Pete Buttigieg--the young, fresh-faced polyglot from Indiana--to shake up the Democratic primaries. We've been treated to a barrage of stories about Buttigieg's "surge" into the top tier in recent weeks.

But is Buttigieg-mentum real? Probably not.

As I wrote last week, "lane"-based analyses of the primaries are as useless as they are common. Moderate and progressive "lanes" exist only in the minds of political junkies and journalists. Voters like whom they like, for a variety of reasons, including cues from trusted influencers and members of their social in-group, candidates' personalities and identities and, in primary contests, perceived electability.

The numbers tell the tale. According to Morning Consult, Biden supporters most frequently name Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as their preferred second choice, with 27 percent choosing each, followed by Buttigieg in a distant third place with 9 percent. And 28 percent of Buttigieg supporters name Warren as their top second choice, five points ahead of Biden. According to the polls, voters are as happy to switch lanes in a primary contest as they are on a busy freeway.

"Mayor Pete," as he's known, does have a path. He is a favorite of Democratic donors and has raised a lot of money. And he's surged to second place in Iowa, where he's now trailing Warren by four points, according to RealClearPolitics' polling average. A first- or second-place finish in Iowa, with more favorable media coverage, could cause voters in later states to give Buttigieg a second look, especially if Biden falters and 1,000 news stories are written claiming that he's a natural alternative to the former Vice President.

But a big night in Iowa probably won't boost Buttigieg's standings as much as his supporters would hope. There would no doubt be some lazy punditry about how his surprising performance made it a whole new race, but reporters would also caution that Iowa is a lily-white state that's just a four-hour drive from Indiana, and therefore a better fit for Buttigieg than other states.

A week later, New Hampshire voters will go to the polls and Buttigieg is currently in fourth place in The Granite State, polling under 9 percent.  Then, over the following three weeks, the race will move to more diverse states--Nevada and South Carolina--where at present, Buttigieg isn't much of a contender. He's polling under 5 percent in Nevada and is in sixth place, behind Tom Steyer, at 4 percent in South Carolina.

In the national polls, Buttigieg's supposed momentum is a myth. Way back in April, he really did surge after announcing a huge and unexpected fundraising haul. He climbed from 2 percent to his high of just over 8 percent a month later in RCP's average. In the six months since then, his support has dropped to as low as 4 percent before rebounding to 7 percent, where it stands today. As for the party establishment, he's also in a distant 7th place in FiveThirtyEight's endorsement tracker. 

It's not hard to see why members of the political press would want Buttigieg to claw his way into the top tier. It can be pretty boring to cover the 13 somewhat static months of a primary campaign season before anything actually happens, and a gay millennial Afghanistan vet who speaks Norwegian coming out of nowhere to be a contender would be a great story.

"Mayor Pete" has certainly made himself known nationally and may be a contender in the future--we've all learned how to both spell and pronounce his name--but it's a safe bet that it's not happening in 2020.

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