Pete Buttigieg Is Running Strong in Iowa. Does He Have Room to Grow?

Welcome to Poll Watch, our weekly look at polling data and survey research on the candidates, voters and issues that will shape the 2020 election.

With former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Senator Elizabeth Warren jockeying for the top spot in the Democratic presidential race, we decided to take a look at another candidate who’s been quietly climbing out of the lower rung: Pete Buttigieg. Are there signs that he could grow into a leading candidate, ultimately rivaling — maybe even beating — Mr. Biden and Ms. Warren?

The 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., Mr. Buttigieg began his presidential campaign with a bang last winter and picked up a head of steam in the spring. But for the last several months he has been largely treading water among the second tier of candidates.

A recent batch of polling suggests that could soon change.

Positioning himself as a Midwestern realist who could unify voters across the aisle, Mr. Buttigieg has focused much of his campaign’s formidable war chest on Iowa. He has opened more campaign offices than any other candidate in that state, which is less than four hours west of South Bend on Route 80 and will host the Democrats’ first nominating contest in February 2020.

Mr. Buttigieg’s investment is paying off. A recent Suffolk University/USA Today poll of likely Iowa Democratic caucusgoers showed him alone in third place, at 13 percent support. That put him just a few points behind Mr. Biden, polling at 17.6 percent, and Ms. Warren, at 16.8 percent.

The Real Clear Politics polling average in Iowa — which draws on polls of various methodologies and differing levels of credibility — puts Mr. Buttigieg in third place, at 15.8 percent, just ahead of the 15.3 percent showing by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

“How much Buttigieg can grow is one of the most interesting questions in the race right now,” Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic consultant and founder of the centrist New Democrat Network, said in a phone interview.

If Mr. Buttigieg finishes strongly in the Iowa caucuses, Mr. Rosenberg added, he could make a play for the center lane of the Democratic electorate, establishing himself as a moderate alternative to Ms. Warren and a more youthful centrist pick than Mr. Biden, who is 76. “What’s important is that he’s demonstrated a capacity to do it already, by getting into clear double digits in Iowa,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “In a place that has to make up their mind first, he has been able to put himself in play.”

A Quinnipiac University poll released on Thursday showed Mr. Buttigieg at 10 percent among registered Democratic voters across the country, staking sole claim to fourth place and breaking into double digits in a major national poll for the first time since the spring. About the same share of respondents — roughly one in 10 — identified him as the candidate with the best policy ideas, according to that survey.

In a national CNN poll released on Wednesday, approximately a quarter of registered Democratic voters identified Mr. Buttigieg as one of the candidates they would like to learn more about, with only Ms. Warren garnering more interest, at 31 percent.

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has received a good deal of attention for taking on Ms. Warren in last week’s Democratic presidential debate and for advocating a tempered, consensus-based approach over a more liberal, idealistic one.

But there is evidence that voters were more impressed by Mr. Buttigieg, the other Midwesterner with a message of coalition-building and pragmatism.

“I’m running to be the president who can turn the page and unify a dangerously polarized country,” he said during the debate, before also confronting Ms. Warren on the tax increases that he said would be necessary to pay for “Medicare for all,” a single-payer system that would eliminate private insurance.

In Iowa, respondents to the Suffolk poll who had watched last week’s Democratic debate professed to having been impressed by Mr. Buttigieg. Thirty-nine percent of them said he had performed better than they had expected, higher than for any other candidate; 28 percent of caucusgoers said the same of Ms. Klobuchar. (That puts her technically within the margin of error of Mr. Buttigieg’s number given the poll’s relatively small sample size.)

“He’s really winning the most with high-engagement Democratic primary voters, which also correlates to who goes to a caucus,” Sean McElwee, a co-founder of the left-wing think tank Data for Progress, said in a phone interview.

Mr. McElwee’s firm used its own data to assess differences in candidate support between voters who were paying close attention to political news and those who were not. The results suggest that Mr. Buttigieg’s appeal is twice as great among the most engaged observers.

“I think there’s absolutely growth potential with Pete,” Mr. McElwee said, adding that as voters begin to pay more attention in the months leading up to the first primaries and caucuses, Mr. Buttigieg will have a greater opportunity to make his case.

“He sort of creates an interesting coalition that can pull from a good chunk of different bases,” Mr. McElwee said. “You can pull in some of Biden’s white voters that are maybe more moderate; you can peel away some of the college-educated voters from Warren who are more liberal.”

And while he is the youngest candidate in the race, Mr. Buttigieg appears especially poised to appeal to older voters. Among likely caucusgoers over age 65 with a preferred candidate, 21 percent in the Suffolk poll identified him as their second choice. No other candidate scored as high as a second choice with that demographic — though, again, his number is technically within the margin of error of Ms. Warren’s 14 percent and Mr. Biden’s 11 percent.

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