The Political Case for Mayor Pete

Could he beat Trump? The polls say yes.

by William Saletan – Dec 19, 2019 (

Could Pete Buttigieg beat President Donald Trump in next year’s election? Would Democrats be crazy to nominate a 38-year-old gay man whose biggest job has been mayor of South Bend, Indiana?

Yes, he could win. And no, it’s not crazy.

Buttigieg has a lot going for him. He understands conservative values. He’s a veteran. He has thought through, in detail, the issues that will face the next president. He has practical ideas about how to galvanize and govern the country. He’s good at listening. He speaks in a way that unites people. And he’s connecting. He has gained ground in polls, attracted more than 600,000 donors, and moved to the front of the pack in Iowa and New Hampshire. A lot of voters like what they’re seeing.

Still, many Democrats think he’s risky. They worry that his surge in early primaries won’t translate to a general election. So let’s look at how Buttigieg stacks up against Trump.

I’ve gone back through every public general-election poll that’s been taken since the beginning of November. At first glance, there’s reason for concern. When voters are offered a series of hypothetical elections—Trump vs. former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump vs. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Trump vs. Sen. Elizabeth Warren—Buttigieg doesn’t perform quite as well as those three candidates do. (On average, Biden polls best, then Sanders, then Warren.) But these numbers are somewhat misleading. Trump’s average percentage of the vote, regardless of his opponent, stays within a two-point range in the low 40s. Against Buttigieg, Trump scores in the middle of that range.

The problem for Buttigieg isn’t that voters don’t like him. It’s that many of them don’t know much about him. You can see this gap in the most recent general-election poll that tested voters’ impressions of the candidates. In that survey, taken by Quinnipiac University from Dec. 4 to Dec. 9, 7 percent of respondents said they hadn’t heard enough about Biden or Sanders to form an opinion of those candidates. For Warren, the number was 16 percent. For Buttigieg, it was 39. That’s a challenge for Buttigieg, but it’s also an opportunity. He has a lot of open minds to work with.

Over time, there are several reasons to think Buttigieg could become the strongest nominee. The first reason is his success in the early states. One way to assess how well candidates might perform once voters get to know them is to look at states where nearly all the candidates have campaigned heavily. Since the beginning of November, one poll in Iowa has tested the top four Democrats against Trump in a hypothetical general election. In that survey, Buttigieg outscored Biden by three points and outscored Sanders and Warren by six. In New Hampshire, two polls have tested the top candidates against Trump. On average, Buttigieg did slightly better than Biden and Sanders and substantially better than Warren.

Second, Buttigieg is relatively well liked. In the November-December time frame, only one general-election poll, the Dec. 4 Quinnipiac survey, has asked a national sample of voters whether they viewed the candidates favorably or unfavorably. The percentage who expressed an unfavorable opinion of Buttigieg—29—was about 15 to 20 points lower than the percentage who expressed unfavorable opinions of his top competitors. In part, that’s because he’s less well known. (When voters don’t know a candidate, they don’t express a favorable or unfavorable opinion.) But even if you strip out that factor and focus on net favorability—the percentage of voters who view each candidate favorably, minus the percentage who view that candidate unfavorably—Buttigieg comes out ahead. His net rating was positive, while Biden, Sanders, and Warren were all negative. Among independents, Buttigieg got a net favorable rating of plus-11, while Sanders got 0, Biden got minus-1, and Warren got minus-9.The problem for Buttigieg isn’t that voters don’t like him. It’s that many of them don’t know much about him.

Only one public polling organization, Marquette Law School, has measured general-election favorability ratings at the state level during this time frame. Marquette’s latest poll found that in Wisconsin, Buttigieg had an unfavorable rating roughly 20 to 25 points below the unfavorable ratings of Biden, Sanders, and Warren. Buttigieg was the only candidate whose net rating broke even. Biden was negative by 7 points. Sanders and Warren were negative by double digits.

Buttigieg seems to have hit a sweet spot in the middle of the electorate. Last week, a national Fox News poll asked voters which candidates were too liberal or too conservative on the issues. Most respondents said Sanders and Warren were too liberal. Only 35 percent said Buttigieg was too liberal, and 36 percent said Biden was too liberal. If you calculate a Goldilocks rating for each candidate—the percentage who said he was “about right,” minus the percentage who said he was too liberal or too conservative—Buttigieg was the only candidate who broke even among independents. Every other candidate, including Biden, was net negative.

The most auspicious sign for Buttigieg is that the more voters tune in to the election, the more they like him. In its early December poll, Quinnipiac asked respondents whether they had paid a lot of attention to the campaign, some attention, only a little, or none. Among Democratic primary voters, Buttigieg was the only candidate who showed a strong correlation between attention and support. He was backed by 2 percent of voters who had paid little or no attention, 6 percent of those who had paid some attention, and 13 percent of those who had paid a lot of attention. A follow-up poll by Quinnipiac, released on Monday, produced virtually the same result.

I asked Quinnipiac for additional data to see whether a similar pattern showed up among independents. There was no straight line, but again, Buttigieg posted the most intriguing results. Biden and Sanders scored no better on net favorability among high-attention independents than among low-attention independents. Warren and Buttigieg did score better, but they ended up in different places. Among high-attention independents, Warren earned a net rating of minus-10. Buttigieg earned a net rating of plus-10. In a hypothetical matchup against Trump, Warren saw her margin climb from minus-3 among low-attention independents to plus-15 among high-attention independents. Buttigieg went from plus-7 to plus-20.

This correlation between attention and support is probably skewed by wealth and education. Buttigieg has a lot of high-income, highly educated supporters—exactly the sort of people who pay attention to campaigns. But it’s hard to believe that this accounts for the whole correlation. And the attention pattern matches two other trends: Buttigieg’s rise in polls over time, particularly relative to Biden and Sanders, and his surge in the two states where voters have had the best opportunity to examine the candidates.

Buttigieg can win. He connects with independents, he’s strong in the key states, and as people get to know him, they tend to like him. They discover that he’s well prepared to lead the country—the whole country, not just a party or a movement—in addressing the challenges of the next four years. If he wins Iowa and New Hampshire, cynics and opportunists will scoff that he’s not electable. Don’t believe it.

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