December 15, 2019 📊 Why Pete Buttigieg was always doomed (probably)

Bounces in Iowa and New Hampshire did not translate to gains in Super Tuesday states and beyond

Welcome! I’m G. Elliott Morris, data journalist for The Economist and blogger of polls, elections, and political science. Happy Sunday! This is my weekly email where I write about politics using data and share links to what I’ve been reading and writing. Thoughts? Drop me a line (or just respond to this email). Like what you’re reading? Tap the ❤️ below the title and share with your friends!


Dear Reader,

This week’s main read: I think the hype over Pete Buttigieg is over. Let’s discuss why this was always (probably) the mayor’s destiny.

Plus, I just wrapped up two big projects at work. I’ll share links to them and discuss below.

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Why Pete Buttigieg was always doomed (probably)

Bounces in Iowa and New Hampshire did not translate to gains in Super Tuesday states and beyond

As Elizabeth Warren’s chance of winning the 2020 Democratic nomination for president fell in November, the media found a new favorite child in the race: Pete Buttigieg. CNN said he was “surging to first place” and the New York Times chose him as the subject for their first episode in a weekly TV series on the 2020 candidates. Coverage, both positive and negative, of Mayor Pete soared. Some pundits thought he could even replace Joe Biden as the standard bearer among moderate Democrats.

But now, Buttigieg has stalled. His numbers are flat or maybe even declining. According to The Economist’s average of national polls, support for Buttigieg is now decreasing. His numbers have fallen from a peak north of 10% last month to just 9% today. To be sure, this difference is within the average’s margin of error.

This was likely bound to happen. Candidates follow a relatively predictable pattern of discovery, surge, and decline, as political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck have put it. People get excited about a contendor, then they learn the nasty things that news outlets dig up about them—Buttigieg was particularly hammered for his poor outreach to African American and a past as a consult—and the honeymoon ends. 

The particular reasons for Buttigieg’s decline might be important, if nonunique, but I want to write today about something different. Here’s why I don’t think Buttigieg was ever going to get past the first primary states anyway. 

Support for Buttigieg increased most from October through November in states with relatively few delegates. At its height, the mayor’s surge in Iowa was maybe enough to win ~10 delegates to the national Democratic convention. Although beating expectations in Iowa can certainly put candidates on a path to win the nomination (just ask Barack Obama), it was clear that the mayor’s support was different. Polling in Iowa and New Hampshire didn’t seen to be a leading indicator for his national numbers. Rather, it was a relatively isolated trend.

Mayor Pete has clearly struggled in Super Tuesday states. This is likely because they have fewer whites, the group most likely to support Buttigieg (he is polling near 0% with black South Carolinians), than do Iowa and New Hampshire. Though some analysts shrugged off his troubles with non-whites voters and asserted they would rise as more got to know him (I have countered this narrative all along), people of color have clearly capped Buttigieg’s potential. While he was hitting 25% in Iowa, according to numbers from CBS News and YouGov, Buttigieg was polling below 10% in Super Tuesday states.

All this adds up to a pretty grim spread of delegates for Buttigieg. CBS News estimates that if the primary were held today, Buttigieg would get just 8 delegates out of Super Tuesday states:

This connects to one very important narrative about the Democratic primary, I think. Many commentators have besmirched the Democrats decision to front-load the process with two very unrepresentative (demographically and ideologically) states. Letting Iowa and New Hampshire go first gives an undure advantage to candidates who poll well with white liberals. But Mayor Pete’s campaign shows that even that will not be enough to save them.

And here are some selected links to the work I read and wrote last week:

Posts for subscribers:

Links and Other Stuff

Last week was the UK election. In case you missed it:

  • Here is a chart from me and my colleagues about it. We think the Brexit Party helped Boris Johnson beat expectations in the “red wall”.

  • And we also ran a real-time forecast while the results came in, which was (if I may toot my own horn) extraordinarily successful.

I also wrote about the disconnect between the will of the majority (or at least plurality) of Americans and the Senate when it comes to impeaching Trump:

What I'm Reading and Working On

I’ll be writing this week about the 6th (oh my god, has it been six already??) Democratic debate, assuming it actually happens. I might also expand on my take about Buttigieg.

It’s not an academic book, my typically fare, but an 11 hour plane ride yesterday (9 hours on the plane + a 2 hour delay on the tarmac) finally gave me enough time to move on to the second volume of Lord of The Rings. I’m on the chapter where the Ents go to Isengard to fight Saruman the White. It is remarkable to me that Tolkein can bring trees to life.

Thanks for reading!

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