Gang Up on Pete Buttigieg? Maybe Not

(Bloomberg Opinion) --

We may still not know if Bernie Sanders or Pete Buttigieg actually won the Iowa caucuses, but we do know one thing: Buttigieg has received a classic New Hampshire bounce from it. According to the 538 estimate, he’s gained 4 or 5 percentage points this week and zoomed past former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren. The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, now trails only Sanders in the New Hampshire polls.

It’s unclear if that bounce will continue through Tuesday’s primary, perhaps even allowing him to win in New Hampshire, or if it will level off or even deflate. The history of the New Hampshire primary suggests that the eight days between the two events leaves plenty of time for two, and sometimes even three, zigs and zags. 

All of this makes tonight’s Democratic debate perhaps the most important one of the cycle. Earlier, there was plenty of time to recover from a bad night. Later on in the primary season, voters will tend to be more engaged, and more likely to have made up their minds — and less open to changing them.

For now, however, it’s still the case that “undecided” is leading the Democratic nomination contest. Can Buttigieg retain momentum by broadening his coalition? Can Biden, who still leads national polls, keep his core support if he finishes fourth in New Hampshire (after being fourth in Iowa)?

How many voters who told pollsters they supported Biden had really made a decision, and how many were just parked there while waiting for the once-enormous field to narrow down? If Warren matches her third-place finish from Iowa, will she have the resources to continue on?

As for Sanders, can he, as a factional candidate, expand his own coalition? And how much resistance is there to the Vermont senator, among both voters and party actors? There are plenty of moderate liberals who would prefer to see someone else nominated, but we don't know if they are collectively dead set against him. 

Adding to the uncertainty is Michael Bloomberg, who is spending unprecedented amounts of money but only in states after New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. (Disclaimer: Bloomberg is also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. He is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.) Waiting until after the early events has never been a successful strategy, and it’s hard to know what that spending can buy. 

Bloomberg won’t be at the debate tonight, but Sanders, Buttigieg, Biden and Warren will be, along with Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, whose relatively strong fifth-place finish in Iowa has at least temporarily allowed her to remain in the race. Also taking part will be Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang, neither of whom showed any strength in Iowa and have little support in New Hampshire, according to the polls. 

I’m not sure anyone will take on Buttigieg directly. Yes, each of his rivals wants to stop his momentum. But multi-candidate primaries are tricky. Four years ago on the Republican side, Marco Rubio seemed to be getting a post-Iowa bounce when Chris Christie attacked him in a New Hampshire debate and severely harmed the Florida senator’s candidacy. But it did Christie little good at all. 

Sanders probably wants himself and Buttigieg to finish in the top two spots. Warren, if she has incentive to attack anyone, would probably be best served by going after Sanders, not Buttigieg. Biden certainly wants to deflate Buttigieg’s bounce, but he probably needs to focus on reminding people what they like about him, and that isn’t playing the attack dog. This leaves Klobuchar, who might hope that the other candidates bicker so she can jump in and play peacemaker rather than casting herself in the Christie role. (Yang? Not really his style. Tom Steyer just started running a negative ad against several candidates, so perhaps he’ll give it a try, but so far he hasn’t demonstrated that he can land something like that effectively during a debate.)

My best guess, then, is that we’re not likely to see everyone ganging up on the surging candidate. But it’s only a guess. What I’m more confident about is that lots of New Hampshire Democrats who only recently began to pay attention to the nomination fight will either be watching tonight, or will follow the coverage afterward. And that relatively few of them have made a firm final decision.

1. Sarah Binder at the Monkey Cage on Mitt Romney’s vote.

2. Tom Pepinsky on democratic collapse.

3. Good Seth Masket item on how Trump will run for re-election by accusing his Democratic opponent of scandal. I think it undersells just how fictional the “scandal” might be — and the danger that Trump will push government agencies to generate a phony one. 

4. Jennifer C. Lucas, Christopher J. Galdieri and Brian O’Connor on changes in how candidates campaign in New Hampshire.

5. Hans Noel and a group of students on what they saw in Iowa.

7. Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes on what the Senate did.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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