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A poll released earlier this week showed Pete Buttigieg leading the Democratic presidential primary pack in Iowa for the first time. A new poll released on Saturday showed him as the clear front-runner. The 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., was a virtual unknown when he announced his campaign in April, but he has recently surged in states that will be among the first to vote in the primary.
Buttigieg, an openly gay military veteran, was the top choice of 25 percent of likely Iowa caucus-goers, outpacing long-standing frontrunners Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The poll shows major growth in his support in the past three months. A poll taken in August had him at just 8 percent.
Why there’s debate
Though it’s only two polls, some political experts see it as evidence that Buttigieg may have a chance at winning the Democratic nomination — and even the presidency. Buttigieg has staked a position where he can be seen as a reasonable alternative for voters who have doubts about the three leading candidates.
Buttigieg’s policy platform is progressive, but not as far left as Sanders’s and Warren’s. A key example is his Medicare for All Who Want It plan, which would be a major shift in how the U.S. health care system works, but not as transformative as the Medicare for All plans promoted by Warren and Sanders. Buttigieg is also an alternative choice for moderate voters who may be dissatisfied with Biden.
Still, there are several reasons to question whether Buttigieg can compete for the nomination. His biggest shortcoming is low support among black voters. He may perform well in the predominantly white states of Iowa and New Hampshire that open the primary, but could fall off significantly as voting moves to South Carolina and other demographically diverse states.
Buttigieg’s lack of experience relative to his competition, which includes senators, former governors and a former vice president, could dampen his appeal, some analysts argue. There are also questions about whether his sexuality might limit support from religious voters.
Buttigieg will have a chance to continue his upward momentum with a strong showing in the next primary debate, on Wednesday. The first votes in the Democratic primary will be cast in the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3.
He can win
Buttigieg has entrenched himself as a strong alternative to the three leading candidates
“As voters have developed Goldilocks syndrome about the leading Democratic candidates — too old, too liberal, too ... female? — Buttigieg has benefitted from the strong vanilla flavor of his political porridge.” — Clare Malone, FiveThirtyEight
He has been a successful fundraiser
“Buttigieg is alone among the alternatives to Warren, Biden and Sanders in having the money and organization to actually compete going forward.” — Andrew Romano, Yahoo News
He has moved into the top tier of competitors
“What I think we’re seeing in the early states and nationally is that Buttigieg has sort of joined that top four across the board. ... This is a race right now between Biden, Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg, and they are sort of a tier unto themselves.” — David Chalian, CNN
His frequent discussion of religion could make him appealing to voters Dems sometimes struggle to reach
“He’s not an evangelical; he’s a mainline Protestant who, unlike other Democratic candidates, isn’t shy about acknowledging his faith publicly or using the word ‘sin.’ The mayor appears to be reaching out beyond his party’s relatively secular base to more conservative, religiously minded Americans in part by underlining his embrace of the stewardship thread of American environmental thought.” — Asher Price, Los Angeles Times
He benefits from a favorable relationship with the media
“The Indiana mayor’s availability to the media — a strategy initially born out of necessity for the largely unknown politician — is one reason he has vaulted over more established candidates in the Democratic field.” — Maureen Groppe, USA Today
Even if he comes up short in 2020, Buttigieg has a bright political future
“Even if Mr. Buttigieg fails to capture the nomination, he’s already won himself a coveted place in the political universe — as even those supporting other candidates acknowledge.” — Reid J. Epstein and Lisa Lerer, New York Times
He will come up short
Buttigieg can’t win without increasing his support from black voters
“The Democratic nomination remains very much up for grabs, but a big question hanging over Buttigieg’s head is whether he can make sufficient inroads with African-American primary voters to capture the nomination.” — John McCormack, National Review
Some people may be reluctant to vote for a gay man
“Beyond the primary, it’s not clear how the broader electorate will react to a candidate who is in a same-sex marriage, something that’s never been tested on the presidential level before.” — Amy B Wang, Washington Post
Despite his youth, he has struggled to inspire young voters
“One of the biggest themes of his campaign is that idea of generational change, and he seems also to be trying to establish himself as a youthful, centrist alternative to Joe Biden. ... But he is not exceptionally popular with young voters.” — Juana Summers, NPR
His lack of executive experience may make voters hesitant to trust him
“No Democratic presidential nominee since Alton Parker — a New York state judge who was the party’s pick to challenge Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 — has boasted as light a political resume as Buttigieg’s. Several times, I struggled to find a polite way to ask Buttigieg if he really felt ready to move from mayor of South Bend to Leader of the Free World.” — Walter Shapiro, New Republic
He may have turned off the left wing of the party by moderating some of his positions
“Buttigieg has been accused mostly by Sanders and Warren supporters of tacking to the center in the past few weeks, with accusations that he came in bold when there was nothing to lose but now wants to come across as acceptable when winning is theoretically in sight.” — Edward-Isaac Dovere, the Atlantic
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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Nati Harnik/AP