One state down, and many states to go. In one respect, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg “won” the Iowa caucuses Monday evening regardless whether he finishes first in delegates or in the popular vote.
One year ago, Buttigieg was a mere asterisk in the Democratic contest. Then 37 years old and the gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Buttigieg seemed unlikely to raise the necessary money or to excite Democratic voters, who were likely to gravitate to better known officeholders like former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Even former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, fresh off an unsuccessful but enthusiasm-generating Senate campaign in Texas, seemed like a potentially more significant hopeful in the Democratic field.
Veteran pollster Gary Langer described Buttigieg’s performance in the Iowa caucuses entrance poll as showing a “broad-based appeal,” while candidates like Sanders and Biden demonstrated much more narrow appeal.
Sanders did extremely well among young voters, but poorly among seniors.
Biden was strong with seniors but weak among younger voters.
Sanders did well among the most liberal voters, while Biden was strong among so-called moderates.
Iowa was not kind to Biden. His fourth-place showing was unimpressive, and while it is fair to note that the state is not necessarily ideal for him, his weak showing doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence in his ability to win the nomination.
As I noted months ago, he too often seems to lack agility and sharpness as a candidate.
Biden’s strategy continues to be surviving until South Carolina at the end of February, when African-American voters will carry him to victory in the Democratic primary.
But if he finishes behind Buttigieg in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday and underperforms in the Nevada caucuses on February 22nd, will the air completely come out of Biden’s balloon?
Biden isn’t the only hopeful who leaves Iowa with huge question marks.
Warren seems to have finished third in the caucuses, which gives her one of the “tickets” out of the state. That’s a solid finish, but remember: Warren was often credited with having the top ground game in Iowa.
More important, Warren is in a mini-race against Sanders, and the Vermont senator beat her in Iowa and appears to be running ahead of her in the Granite State (where both Sanders and Warren are neighbors), as well as in national polls.
If Warren repeatedly finishes behind Sanders, she will at some point need to explain how she can win her party’s nomination.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar has reason to be happy with her relatively strong fifth-place showing (based on popular votes and delegates) in Iowa.
She clearly gained strength in the final weeks before the caucuses, and her message of pragmatism and electability certainly seems to resonate with some Democrats. But Klobuchar is competing with both Biden and Buttigieg for that Democratic “lane,” and her showing no doubt had something to do with the fact that Minnesota is an Iowa neighbor.
She won’t be able to repeat her “Midwest” message in New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina, so even if Biden stumbles more, it’s unclear whether she can overtake Buttigieg in the pragmatic lane.
Buttigieg has both assets and liabilities as a candidate — including questions about his appeal in the minority community — but he is one of the few candidates who can appeal to a broad spectrum of Democratic voters.
That is, he seems acceptable to Democrats of various stripes, in part because he is relatively new to politics and is not burdened by a long record of recorded votes and political positions.
Finally, Biden’s showing had to make supporters of Michael Bloomberg feel good. The pragmatic lane remains fractured, and the former New York mayor’s money means he can run a first-rate media campaign in Super Tuesday states on March 3rd.
One caucus does not equal the Democratic nomination. But Buttigieg benefits most from Monday’s results. Now he has to take advantage of that showing.
Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on February 4, 2020.