In the aftermath of an Iowa poll this week placing Pete Buttigieg in a surprising third place among other candidates, the political expert behind the data said the gay 2020 hopeful could achieve a “dark horse” victory next year.
Spencer Kimball, a professor in political and sports communication at Emerson College, said the poll marks a distinct change for Buttigieg, who was polling at zero in Iowa just two months ago.
“He was in our poll and nobody selected him,” Kimball said. “It was interesting that two months later, he was really able to move the needle more so than any other candidate who was in a similar predicament.”
The poll, conducted March 21-24, found Buttigieg had 11 percent support among Democratic caucus voters in Iowa, placing him in third place in a sea of 2020 hopefuls. The state every four years hosts the Iowa caucuses, which are the first contests for presidential candidates and next year are set to take place Feb. 3.
Buttigieg is behind Joseph Biden, who polled at 25 percent, and Bernie Sanders, who polled at 24 percent, but both those candidates have significant name recognition and have been polling in first and second place in national polls.
Buttigieg’s 11 percent places him ahead of Kamala Harris, who polled at 10 percent, Elizabeth Warren, who polled at 9 percent, Cory Booker at 6 percent, and Beto O’Rourke at 5 percent. Four percent of other respondents said they wanted someone else; none of the other candidates broke 2 percent.
In contrast to Buttigieg, Kimball said Harris was polling stronger in another Iowa poll two months ago, which was around the time she announced she was running for president. Two months later, Kimball said, Harris has “regressed a little bit back into that more second-tier, middle-of-the-pack candidacy” That’s the opposite direction Buttigieg has polled in the more recent data.
“The implications are he seems to have been able to strike a chord with the Democratic electorate, and if he’s able to maintain [that], he could become a dark horse,” Kimball said.
Kimball credited Buttigieg’s growth in popularity to the variety of media appearances he has made and his perspicacity in answering questions.
“Because of his last name, it’s a little more difficult to pronounce, and a lot of people just call him Mayor Pete,” Kimball said. “There’s an authenticity about that name that you don’t have with the other candidates, and I think the way he presented himself has been genuine, and I think that is being seen by voters and based on the other data that I’ve seen, his numbers keep inching up as more and more people are learning who he is.”
The South Bend, Ind., mayor has benefited from these media appearances not just in terms of increasing popularity, but in donations. After a CNN town hall in which Buttigieg made headlines by calling Vice President Mike Pence a “cheerleader of the porn star presidency,” the candidate raised $600,000 from more than 22,000 donors over the course of 24 hours.
It’s not just in Iowa where Buttigieg has grown in popularity. In a national poll Emerson published last week, the South Bend mayor polled at 3 percent among other Democrats. A Morning Consult poll published this week had Buttigieg at 2 percent among all Democratic primary voters, which was one percentage point higher than he was last week.
Kimball said those numbers might not sound impressive at this stage in the Democratic horse race, but observers should keep in mind Buttigieg is “in a field of 15 horses.”
“Jay Inslee hasn’t been able to do that, [John] Hickenlooper hasn’t been able to do that, Kirsten Gillibrand hasn’t been able to do that,” Kimball said. “Look at John Delaney, he’s been running for president for two-and-a-half-years. He’s not measuring anywhere.”
Despite this initial success, Buttigieg needs to increase his standing in Iowa even more to have any success there. To be viable in the Iowa caucuses, a candidate must have support of at least 15 percent of attendees in any particular precinct. With 11 percent support statewide, Buttigieg is still not there.
But Kimball said the upcoming debates would be an opportunity for Buttigieg — as well as other candidates — to see continued growth. As a result of the donations he has received in total, Buttigieg has achieved the 65,000-donor threshold necessary to make the stage at the debates this summer.
“I’m really looking at the debates as the next platform for these candidates to kind of show their worth,” Kimball said.
Kimball also cautioned this newfound growth for Buttigieg might also attract newfound scrutiny, which could jeopardize that growth.
“Now remember, he hasn’t been fully vetted like some of these other candidates in the sense people know his whole record, and we don’t know what negatives might be out there,” Kimball said.
Still, Kimball said the regional appeal Buttigieg enjoys in Iowa — which is next to his home state of Indiana — could spread to other places as he continues his campaign this year and spreads his message.
“He might have some more regional appeal, and…as his candidacy grows, that will increase in New Hampshire, South Carolina as he continues to campaign over the next 10 months or so,” Kimball said.