Cattle call: Two months out from first contest, Pete Buttigieg makes a bid for front-runner status

Whoa, haven’t done a cattle call since mid-September! Where did the time go? (It went into impeachment land, that’s where it went.) At the time, there were three legit candidates—Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders. Today, we must add Pete Buttigieg to the list. No one else matters. Let’s do this! And let’s start by looking at the poll aggregate: 

The one clear trend above is a sharp drop (maybe even collapse) of Elizabeth Warren’s support following the fourth debate and the rollout of her health care plan. It’s as if people said, “Wait, she’s really liberal!” and got spooked off. Is that enough to shake up the Biden-Warren-Sanders order of the mid-September cattle call? Let’s find out!

1. Joe Biden ⬆️ (Last cattle call: 1)

Biden holds on to his top spot merely by virtue of holding on to his support. Now, there’s no inherent strength in hovering in the high 20s, meaning 3/4 of Democratic primary voters would prefer someone else. However, given that he remains at the top, it’s enough to earn him top honors at the moment. 

That said, Biden is in serious risk of coming in at fourth place in Iowa and New Hampshire, which would deal a serious blow to his electability and inevitability arguments. It doesn’t help that neither of those two states has an appreciable black electorate, the source of most of his support. Polling has shown him dominant in South Carolina, where the Democratic electorate is heavily black, but he could be heading to Super Tuesday with a string of embarrassing losses. 

Furthermore, his support is maxed out. No one is undecided on Biden, and in fact, his debate and public performances have been filled with enough cringe-inducing moments to scare off any undecideds. He is nowhere near as sharp as he was when he debated Paul Ryan, and his problematic past has hampered his ability to make inroads with younger demographics. He is a product of a different country and a different Democratic Party, and he’s shown zero interest in evolving with the times. 

In other words, he is the front-runner based on name recognition and fear that only a white man can beat Trump. His lack of crowds and poor fundraising merely underscore that reality. 

2. Pete Buttigieg ⬆️ (Last cattle call: unranked)

His national numbers are surging, and a heavy advertising blitz in Iowa and New Hampshire have given him leads in the first two early states. Buttigieg may very well be the functional front-runner at this stage of the campaign. His ascent is quite remarkable, given his unremarkable background. I’ve made no secret of my disgust for his candidacy—a small-liberal-college-town mayor who failed at handling racial problems in his police force thinking he deserves a promotion to the presidency.

Buttigieg’s Achilles’ heel stems from those race issues—his black support is at zero. That doesn’t matter in Iowa and New Hampshire, two unrepresentative states that should never again play point in any Democratic nomination contest. But the rest of the country has plenty of black and brown folks, and Buttigieg’s campaign response to that lack of support has been to blame black voters of homophobia. Indeed, Buttigieg’s turn as nominal front-runner has been rocky, as was Warren’s. It’s tough to bear the full brunt of everyone’s attacks (even though he was spared any confrontation in the fifth debate). He’s unlikely to remain similarly unscathed in the December debate, and time will tell whether he can maintain what support he has. But for now, his rise is real, and so is his placing in this cattle call. In fact, he should probably be first, and would be if he could claim any support among nonwhite voters. 

3. Bernie Sanders ⬇️ (Last cattle call: 3)

Sanders just chugs along, right? He spent more money on TV advertising than Buttigieg, and got what? Zero change. His supporters are going nowhere; they’re LOCKED in. And he’s not gaining any new support. People either love him or have moved on to others, and nothing appears to change that. So … where does that leave him? He has plenty of money to spend on TV, but how can he convince people to give him a second look? Fifteen percent isn’t enough to be truly competitive, but it’s plenty enough to play spoiler. If he can’t bust out of that range by Super Tuesday, his supporters will need to decide between allegiance to their guy or strategic voting based on ideology. 

4. Elizabeth Warren ⬇️ (Last cattle call: 2)

Warren has suffered the biggest drop in the last couple of months, and her health care rollout could not have gone any more poorly. On the merits, her plan is quite amazing; on the politics, people aren’t quite ready to give up on private insurance. The problem isn’t love for that private insurance, but fear of the unknown. Those candidates with less aggressive plans, centered on personal choice and a private option, are winning the politics. It’s why Buttigieg shifted from Medicare for All to the more iterative public option. It’s why everyone except for Sanders has adopted that less aggressive stance. And it’s probably a reason that Sanders himself has stagnated. The policy merits of Medicare for All may be golden, but Democratic voters just don’t love it—whether it’s from personal choice or out of fear that the issue will be a loser during the general election

Warren’s strength still resides in being the second-choice option of more voters than any other candidate, and she remains strongly competitive in Iowa, New Hampshire, and in the fourth contest, Nevada. (No one does well in South Carolina except for Biden.) But at 15% and seemingly still dropping, her core base of support has proven lower than I expected, and she may still not have hit bottom. 

One other note: Warren has spent almost nothing on television so far, clearly holding fire until closer to Election Day. She has more than enough money to compete in a wider field, and she’s proven the ability to garner support in the past. Has she lost those supporters for good? Who the heck knows? But she’ll need to get them back in the early states in order to propel herself into Super Tuesday with momentum. 

The rest

Look at the ad spending numbers: 


The two white male egomaniac billionaires have already spent a combined $100 million on TV. For Tom Steyer, it has bought him inclusion in the debates, a travesty of the process, and exhibit A on the pernicious power of the monied class. Thinking about all the good progressive infrastructure-building that money could’ve done is sickening. And yes, both Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer have spent heavily on liberal causes in recent years, but there is so much more that could be done. They’d rather piss away a fortune on their selfish self-aggrandizement than spend on things that could usher in a real progressive majority. Fuck those guys. 

Andrew Yang is himself spending a great deal of money to go nowhere outside of the Reddit set. As for the rest? No one has gained any traction. Buttigieg has proven that candidates still have time to emerge from that cellar, but time is actually running out. We’ll soon be in stretch-run territory. 

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