Two of the three most recent polls of Iowa Democrats flagged by Real Clear Politics show Pete Buttigieg in the lead. The most recent one, by the Des Moines Register/CNN, has him well ahead. In that survey, he leads second-place Elizabeth Warren by 25-16.
In a Monmouth poll, Buttigieg edges out Joe Biden, 22-19, with Warren in third place at 18 percent. The other survey is by CBS News/YouGov. It finds Biden and Bernie Sanders ahead of Buttigieg by the insignificant margin of 22-21. Warren’s support is at 18 percent.
Thanks to his recent surge, the Real Clear Politics average puts Buttigieg in the lead with 21 percent backing. Warren, Biden, and Sanders follow in that order. They are clustered at 17-19 percent.
Unless the Des Moines Register/CNN poll correctly measures the sentiment of Iowa Democrats, the race is still a close four-way battle. And even if that poll has it right, there’s plenty of time for the race to take a different shape.
In other words, I have no clear idea who will prevail in the Iowa caucuses.
I will say, however, that Buttigieg is a great fit with Iowa caucus goers. They have a deserved reputation for being contrarian and a bit quirky. Past winners include Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee on the Republican side and Tom Harkin, Dick Gephardt, and “Uncommitted” among Democrats. John Edwards ran ahead of Hillary Clinton in 2008.
Of the four leading Democratic contenders, Buttigieg is the contrarian play. Biden and Warren are co-favorites. Sanders finished in a virtual tie with Hillary Clinton in the 2016 caucuses.
Buttigieg is the fresh face. He also comes across as quirkier than his three main rivals.
What would be the effect of a Buttigieg win in the Iowa caucuses? Elizabeth Warren would be the main loser, I think. For some time, it’s been expected that Biden would lose in Iowa. Moreover, he is believed to have a firewall of southern states where African American voters are expected to carry him to victory. Whether he actually has that firewall remains to be seen, but the view that he does might enable him to take in stride a loss in Iowa, provided he is not routed.
Warren, by contrast, was thought to be taking control of the race in Iowa. In addition, she has no southern firewall. Iowa and New Hampshire are supposed to be where she bursts into the position of clear frontrunner. If she loses in Iowa, she will still have New Hampshire. However, a victory there would not be terribly impressive, since that’s her backyard.
What would victory in Iowa mean for Buttigieg? It would lift him to the top tier of candidates, at least in the minds of many pundits.
However, upset Iowa winners usually are unable to parlay victory there into the nomination (Barack Obama being the exception) or even into victory in New Hampshire (Obama didn’t). And Buttigieg would still face the daunting prospect of running in states where African-Americans have a strong say. Whatever happens in Iowa, these states would still pose a large, and quite possibly insuperable, barrier to Mayor Pete’s candidacy.
In short, a Buttigieg victory in Iowa might well shake things up, but I don’t think it would substantially improve his chances of winning the nomination unless Biden crashes and burns. In that event, Buttigieg would have a good shot at dominating the non-radical lane, and more than a slight chance of being the Democratic nominee.