New poll shows Buttigieg in the lead in Iowa. Can he win it all?

Andrew RomanoWest Coast Correspondent

Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one key takeaway every weekday and a wrap-up each weekend. Reminder: There are 85 days until the Iowa caucuses and 359 days until the 2020 election.

When Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old openly gay mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana, announced his presidential campaign in April, he was the longest of long shots to win the Democratic nomination.

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But now Buttigieg is one of the few remaining Democrats with a path to victory, a path that is getting clearer day by day. 

On Tuesday Monmouth University released a blockbuster new poll showing Buttigieg leading the field in Iowa for the first time. According to Monmouth, 22 percent of likely caucus-goers now list Buttigieg as their top choice, putting him 3 points ahead of former Vice President Joe Biden (19 percent), 4 points ahead of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (18 percent) and 9 points ahead of Sen. Bernie Sanders (13 percent).

Monmouth previously surveyed the Hawkeye State in August, after Buttigieg’s initial bump but before his recent effort to rebrand himself as a kind of Goldilocks candidate for wavering Dems: less status quo than Biden, more pragmatic than Warren, and a safer bet than either of them to beat President Trump next November. The August poll found Buttigieg at 8 percent — meaning that he’s gained 14 points in Iowa over the last three months.

“Buttigieg is emerging as a top pick for a wide variety of Iowa Democrats,” said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute. “You really can’t pigeonhole his support to one particular group. He is doing well with voters regardless of education or ideology.”

Critics will be quick to dismiss Monmouth as just one poll among many. But there are two reasons they should take it seriously. First, Murray is widely considered one of the best pollsters in the business; according to Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight, Monmouth is one of only six “A+” rated polling outfits currently surveying American public opinion. Second, Monmouth isn’t the only poll showing a Buttigieg surge where it matters most, in key early states.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg addresses supporters in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo: Nati Harnik/AP)
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg addresses supporters in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo: Nati Harnik/AP)

In Iowa, Buttigieg has long been outperforming his national polling average, which is currently hovering around 8 percent. In late September he leapt into double digits; in mid-October he passed Sanders and moved into third place.

But in the last two weeks he has picked up momentum in the state. Three high-quality Iowa polls have come out this month: Monmouth, Quinnipiac and New York Times/Siena College. All three show Buttigieg in either first or a statistical tie for second place, and together they have established a clear trend line in the overall Iowa polling average. Since the last Democratic debate, on Oct. 15 — the one where Buttigieg reintroduced himself as a scrappier, more passionate proponent of Midwestern center-left pragmatism, to rave reviews — Warren has fallen by about 2 points overall; Biden has fallen by about 4 points; and Buttigieg has risen by about 6 points. The Hoosier is now within 0.4 points, on average, of overtaking Warren. 

And Iowa isn’t the only place where Buttigieg is gaining ground. The lone New Hampshire poll released so far this month, by Quinnipiac, shows him at 15 percent in a three-way statistical tie with Warren and Sanders for second place. 

The likeliest explanation for Buttigieg’s ascent is that he’s benefiting from widespread anxiety among rank-and-file Democrats about the general election prospects of Warren (too far left) and Biden (not sharp enough) — an anxiety that is more pronounced in places like Iowa and New Hampshire, where voters are currently paying much closer attention than their counterparts elsewhere. That may be why Monmouth’s new Iowa poll found that Buttigieg boasts the best favorability rating in the field (73 percent favorable versus 10 percent unfavorable), whereas net favorability ratings (favorability minus unfavorability) for Biden and Warren have declined since August by 13 points and 16 points, respectively.  

Buttigieg supporters hold a rally in Des Moines. (Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP)
Buttigieg supporters hold a rally in Des Moines. (Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Meanwhile, Buttigieg is alone among the alternatives to Warren, Biden and Sanders in having the money and organization to actually compete going forward. After two stellar fundraising quarters, the South Bend mayor entered the homestretch with more cash on hand ($23.4 million) than anyone except Warren ($25.7 million) and Sanders ($33.7 million). For comparison, Biden had only $9 million in the bank at the end of Q3. Buttigieg also boasts more field offices in Iowa than anyone else (and the same is true in New Hampshire).

Given all this, it’s increasingly possible to see how Buttigieg could win the nomination. A flush, resurgent Sanders, fresh off securing the endorsement of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and rallying 25,000 supporters in Queens, continues to split the left-wing vote with Warren. Warren continues to take incoming fire. Biden’s poll numbers continue to sag, especially in the early states. And Buttigieg peaks at just the right moment, surprising everyone on caucus day with a first- or second-place finish. Biden and Sanders limp into New Hampshire, where Buttigieg repeats the feat. And suddenly, after another poor showing from Biden in South Carolina, his firewall state, it’s a two-person race: Warren the progressive champion versus Buttigieg the Rust Belt pragmatist. Perhaps Sanders sticks around, siphoning votes from Warren. And state by state, Buttigieg eventually prevails.

Earlier this month Buttigieg made waves with a suggestion — which he later partially retracted to avoid sounding presumptuous — that the 2020 Democratic primary contest was “getting to be a two-way” race between him and Warren.

“It’s early to say,” he told Showtime’s “The Circus.” But “a world where we’re getting somewhere is a world where it’s coming down to the two of us.”

This has long been Buttigieg’s plan. It won’t necessarily come to fruition; he’s yet to absorb the kind of frontrunner attacks that have tarnished Biden and Warren. But for now, at least, the plan seems to be working.

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