Buttigieg Executed His Strategy But He Still Isn’t Winning
(Bloomberg) -- Pete Buttigieg executed his strategy almost perfectly. He won in Iowa and finished in a closer-than-expected second place in New Hampshire.
But, those early successes have failed to catapult him, as his campaign long argued, to becoming a front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Instead, he’s barely budged in national polls, voters of color have not turned in large numbers to his candidacy and a surge of fund-raising never materialized.
Now, Buttigieg, the barrier-breaking candidate who stunned the Democratic Party with his meteoric rise, is facing his most serious test yet as the race turns national.
Buttigieg is expected to finish outside the top three in Saturday’s South Carolina primary, where more than 60% of Democratic voters are black. His campaign is setting expectations low, and it is already turning attention to next week’s Super Tuesday and beyond.
But polls do not show Buttigieg leading in any of those primaries, and his campaign has set a $13 million fund-raising target it says it needs to hit to “stay competitive.”
Since entering the race last winter, Buttigieg outlasted several senators and governors and raised more than $80 million as he rose from the mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city to the first openly gay candidate to win delegates in a party presidential contest.
He did so by presenting himself as a candidate who offered much that presumed front-runner Joe Biden lacked. He was a young veteran from outside Washington who spoke of the future instead of reminiscing about the past. But other candidates kept joining the field or staying in longer than expected, pushing Buttigieg into a cluster of moderates.
“Pete’s strategy was dependent on others faltering,” Democratic strategist Joel Payne said. “If Biden’s out of the race, if Warren’s out of the race, Pete’s the guy. But he could never get the other shoe to drop to allow him to build a bigger coalition. His strategy was always a dependent-on-others strategy.”
Buttigieg did get a 4-point bump in national polls after his delegate victory in Iowa, but that bounce leveled off after New Hampshire, and he remains at 10% in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls. As for fund-raising, Buttigieg’s campaign ended January with $6.6 million in the bank, down from $14.5 million in December.
“We know that Pete is the best positioned candidate to beat Bernie Sanders and ensure a victory for Democrats up and down the ballot in November, but only if we’re able to raise the resources we need to execute our plan,” Sean Savett, a spokesman for the campaign, said in a statement. “That’s why we set a fund-raising goal of raising $13 million ahead of Super Tuesday and we’re nearly halfway there.”
The race was supposed to be going smoother by now, according to the strategy.
But the bungling of the Iowa caucus results hurt Buttigieg’s ability to capitalize on his top finish. The emergence of Michael Bloomberg and the half-billion dollars he’s spent on advertising gave voters another alternative to Biden. And Iowa didn’t shrink the field the way it traditionally does, leaving Amy Klobuchar in position to continue on into New Hampshire.
(Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News).
Some Democrats say the Buttigieg campaign’s strategy, however, was flawed from its inception. Buttigieg never connected with black and Latino voters, two of the most important voting blocs in the party, and so the belief that strong performances in two overwhelmingly white states would translate to support from voters of color was unfounded, they argue.
“There was always a fatal fundamental flaw in his campaign which was the lack of a diverse coalition,” Payne said. “Even Bernie was able to build out his with Latinos. Biden has always had African American voters and Pete didn’t have that. Pete always lacked that second act that included building out a coalition.”
Buttigieg’s rise began with a CNN town hall last March. The appearance helped him raise more than $600,000 in 24 hours and kicked off a tour-de-force of media appearances. Comparisons to Barack Obama quickly followed, but there were questions about who Buttigieg was and what he stood for.
He spoke favorably about Medicare for All and the Green New Deal and frequently discussed major structural reforms like adding justices to the Supreme Court or doing away with the Electoral College.
But when Biden’s campaign sputtered, Buttigieg shifted out of the progressive lane, presenting himself as a pragmatic, details-focused politician. He laced into Elizabeth Warren for not detailing how she would pay for Medicare for All and devised his own health-care proposal he calls Medicare for All Who Want It.
Buttigieg’s campaign made a big bet on Iowa, seeking to emulate Obama’s success there in 2008. For months, his campaign telegraphed a top finish in Iowa would launch him to front-runner status and settle the lingering concerns over his candidacy.
He claimed victory on caucus night, even before any results were released because of major technical problems counting the votes. But the attention was on the vote-count disaster, not on Buttigieg.
That blunted the cash and polling windfall the campaign had expected, according to a Democratic operative familiar with the campaign. Buttigieg still raised nearly $3 million after the Iowa caucuses and the momentum vaulted him into a close second-place finish in New Hampshire with Bernie Sanders.
But Klobuchar had hacked away in the New Hampshire debate at his qualifying experience for the Oval Office and presented voters with yet another moderate alternative.
“I firmly believe Amy cost him,” said Michael Ceraso, who served as Buttigieg’s New Hampshire state director for four months last year.
Moreover, Buttigieg’s early successes masked his lack of progress with voters of color. His record on policing — particularly the number of arrests of black residents for marijuana possession and his handling of a police-involved shooting last summer — and missteps by his campaign left him with little support from black voters. In Nevada, Buttigieg finished a distant third, greatly trailing Biden and Sanders with black and Latino voters.
With Sanders’ second win, Buttigieg ratcheted up his criticism of the Vermont senator, warning Democrats that Sanders was too divisive to unite the country and defeat President Donald Trump, but by that time, Sanders had the momentum.
“We’re in a moment where Bernie Sanders is in the lead, and Democrats are going to have to decide whether that’s the direction that we want the nomination contest to go in, or whether we want another way,” Buttigieg told reporters on his campaign plane after the Nevada caucuses. “My message is to invite everybody who’s looking for another way to see that we’re the only ones who have beat him in any way, and we’re putting together the majority that it’s going to take to win.”
However, the Democratic operative familiar with the Buttigieg campaign acknowledged the criticism of Sanders from Buttigieg and other candidates was too late. The operative added that Bloomberg’s entrance into the race sucked up a lot of the oxygen, giving Sanders a smoother ride to becoming the front-runner.
Post-Super Tuesday Strategy
As the campaign looks past South Carolina, it is focused on keeping Sanders at bay.
“This race will not be determined on Super Tuesday,” the Buttigieg campaign wrote in a memo released on Tuesday night.
The memo outlined how the campaign is working to limit Sanders’s delegate haul on Super Tuesday as advisers believe Buttigieg is better positioned in the states that vote on March 10’s mostly Midwestern states and Arizona, Florida, Ohio and Illinois on March 17. Buttigieg has drawn big crowds at rallies in Super Tuesday states over the past two weeks — highlighted by nearly 9,000 people in Arlington, Virigina on Sunday — and many staff have been deployed to those states from Iowa and New Hampshire.
The campaign has also repeatedly pointed out that Buttigieg is the only candidate to have defeated Sanders in a contest, and thus, is best positioned to take him on.
But Buttigieg just recently went up on television in Super Tuesday states and his seven-figure ad buy made him the second-to-last candidate to do so. Biden announced a six-figure ad buy in those states on Wednesday.
“We know that if we do not shrink Sanders’ margin of victory coming out of Super Tuesday, he will have too great a lead in the delegate race for anyone to catch up,” the memo says.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.