Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
The third Monmouth University Poll of the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses sent shockwaves through the Democratic Party. It placed Pete Buttigieg, South Bend’s Mayor, at the top of the leader board ahead of frontrunner Joe Biden, and his two main rivals Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
‘Mayor Pete’, as he is commonly known, had not been expected to be a major player in this presidential campaign. With Biden, the notable frontrunner hitherto, running a centrist campaign, the Democratic platform was expected to be pushed to the left by Sanders and Warren.
Instead, it is Buttigieg who threatens to have a disproportionate impact on his party’s direction of travel ahead of the November 2020 election.
Three things stand out about “Mayor Pete”
First, his emergence from political obscurity. A recent GQ profile of Buttigieg began: ‘This time last year, you had no idea who Pete Buttigieg was’.
Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is not a common platform on which to build a nationwide campaign for the presidency. With a population of just over 100,000, Buttigieg cannot call on the wealth of political experience that his Democratic rivals for president boast of. Joe Biden was a Senator for 36 years and then Vice President for eight; Bernie Sanders has been the junior Senator for Vermont for 12 years; and Elizabeth Warren has been a firebrand in the Senate since 2013.
But a lack of political and life experience is not holding Buttigieg back in Iowa. He leads the Democratic field amongst both college graduates and those age 50-64.
Second, his relative youth in a crowded field of more experienced politicians. Not yet 40, Buttigieg is decades younger than Joe Biden (77), Elizabeth Warren (70), Bernie Sanders (78) and Donald Trump (73). In the event of a Buttigieg presidency, he would be the youngest-ever chief occupant of the White House; the youngest president in history to assume office was Theodore Roosevelt (42).
Third, he is appealing to a wide range of voter types. In fact, he has gained ground amongst ever major demographic group since the summer. His support stands at 26 per cent among voters who identify as ‘moderate’ or ‘conservative’, 23 per cent among those who are ‘somewhat liberal’ and 15 per cent who are ‘very liberal’.
Note that whilst the Iowa poll represents a surprise change in course in the Democratic race, it would be remiss to consider it Buttigieg’s to lose. Less than one third (28 per cent) of those polled said they were firmly set on their choice of candidate whilst 61 per cent are open to supporting a different candidate.
Why Iowa matters
The Iowa caucuses, which take place on 3 February, are something of a unique quirk in the US presidential election campaign. Iowa is a rural state with disproportionate importance in the general election process. It is one of only ten states to still operate the ‘caucuses’ system, in which constituents physically meet to decide openly, by a show of hands, which candidates they support.
Iowa is important because it is the first major indicator of how a candidate will fare in the rest of the contest. In 2008, when Barack Obama won Iowa, he overtook Hillary Clinton as the Democratic favourite for the presidential nomination. Historically, it is also the first moment when crowded presidential fields tend to thin out – with 18 Democrats running for president and Michael Bloomberg still reportedly considering becoming the 19th, a poor performance in Iowa will see a shortlist of the least popular candidates withdrawing.
The Democratic Party has been seen to be surging to the left since losing the 2016 general election, typified by the rising stock of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. An openly gay man, Mayor Pete hasn’t sought to downplay his sexual identity. Instead, he talks with pride about the positive impact that his popularity and candidacy will have even if he isn’t the eventual Democratic candidate. He faces challenges to the left from the likes of Sanders and Warren, whilst Biden remains the frontrunner and ‘safe bet’ for Democrats. Still a long shot for the candidacy, his surge in Iowa means Pete Buttigieg is a name you will be hearing much more about in the weeks and months to come.