A Midwestern Democrat running for president is surging in Iowa right now with a plain-spoken appeal and a moderate message of inclusion.
Unfortunately for Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, that candidate is Indiana’s Pete Buttigieg.
The mayor of South Bend shot to the top of a Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll released over the weekend, rising 16 percentage points among Iowa’s likely Democratic caucusgoers.
Busting out of the pack with 25% support, Buttigieg was trailed by Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, all in a three-way tie for second at about 15% support. Klobuchar was in fifth place at 6%, which she hailed as a doubling of her support since the last Register poll in September.
That buttressed other recent polls showing Buttigieg at or near the top in Iowa. His rise in the state with the nation-leading presidential caucus has the youthful Washington outsider suddenly in contention for front-runner status in a highly unsettled Democratic race.
“We have four campaigns now that are bunched up together at the top, without a clear leader,” said Jeff Link, a Des Moines-based Democratic strategist, referring to Warren, Biden, Sanders and Buttigieg. “And you have Senator Klobuchar, who’s trying to close in on that lead group.”
The Minnesotan finished fifth in Quinnipiac and Monmouth polls of Iowa voters released this month, at 5% in each. Buttigieg’s gains in both polls were more substantial.
A separate survey released Friday by Public Policy Polling had Klobuchar at 9% in Iowa, her best showing in a neighboring state critical to her campaign, and one that she has visited 23 times as a presidential candidate.
Late entrances by two big names — former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick — suggest continued dissatisfaction or uncertainty over who’s the best Democrat to unseat President Donald Trump.
“Polls consistently show more than half the electorate has not firmly made up its mind yet,” said Andrew Smith, a political scientist and pollster at the University of New Hampshire.
Buoyed by a strong debate performance in October, Klobuchar has stayed competitive through a winnowing of onetime contenders.
Biden, once the clear leader, has lost ground to Democratic rivals in some recent polls. Others show the former vice president is better positioned than Warren or Sanders to beat Trump next year.
The next Democratic debate is Wednesday in Atlanta. Bloomberg and Patrick won’t be on stage, leaving Klobuchar another shot to propel herself into the middle of the action. While the last debate saw Klobuchar hit Warren a few times from the center, Buttigieg may be a more tempting target this time.
Klobuchar took a shot at Buttigieg on national television last weekend, questioning his viability as a 2020 Trump challenger. “I’m the one from the Midwest that’s actually won in a statewide race. … That’s not true of Mayor Pete, that’s just a fact,” Klobuchar said on CNN.
Buttigieg lost a statewide race for Indiana state treasurer in 2010, while Klobuchar won three U.S. Senate elections in Minnesota.
In the same interview, Klobuchar said she and other women in the race are “held to a different standard” than Buttigieg. “Do I think that we would be standing on that stage if we had the experience that he had? No I don’t,” Klobuchar said. (Buttigieg himself said last week that he believes sexism is a disadvantage to women who run for president.)
Some candidates avoid aiming fire at rivals who are close to them on the issues, fearful of alienating potential allies and followers. Klobuchar did not grant an interview for this article. While she campaigned in California over the weekend, Klobuchar’s campaign hosted a tailgate party with Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz at the Gophers-Hawkeye football game in Iowa City.
Klobuchar aligns with Buttigieg and Biden against Warren and Sanders on Medicare for All, one of the principle dividing lines of the Democratic race. Buttigieg offers “Medicare for All Who Want It,” which would establish a government health program but leave private insurance as an option.
Biden has lately adopted the same terminology. Klobuchar backs a similar approach with her own call for a “public option,” which she often notes was a longtime goal of former President Barack Obama.
Some Buttigieg critics and Klobuchar allies have noted that last year Buttigieg endorsed Medicare for All in a tweet. On Friday, Warren said she’d push for a public option first as president and not pursue Medicare for All until later in her term.
Liz Mathis, an Iowa state senator backing Klobuchar, believes her candidate and Buttigieg are fighting for the same voters.
At a recent organizing event, she said, “two people came up to me separately and said, ‘I’m split between Mayor Pete and Senator Klobuchar.’ I think there’s some movement between those two right now.”
Smith, the New Hampshire pollster, said Buttigieg has likely benefited from a fondness by Democratic voters to political newcomers. Buttigieg’s eloquence on the stump has summoned comparisons to Obama.
“Their voters tend to like the bright, shiny object,” Smith said of Democrats. His most recent New Hampshire poll showed Sanders and Warren at the top and Biden slipping, with Buttigieg close behind. Klobuchar was tied at 5% with Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang. Smith said he still sees an opening for Klobuchar given many undecided voters. He contrasted her to Kamala Harris, the California senator who has plummeted in recent polls.
“You want to be the one who explodes at the end,” he said.
Jeff Shudak, a labor activist from eastern Iowa, threw his support to Klobuchar after his top candidate, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, dropped from the race.
He said she’s struck a good balance given his concerns that Biden’s time has passed and that Buttigieg is too inexperienced.
“I do think for Amy to grow, that Biden has to wane a little bit,” Shudak said. “Because I think a lot of the folks who think Mayor Pete isn’t ready are still more likely to be with Biden right now.”
Link, who worked for Obama’s presidential campaigns, said he believes Klobuchar still has good growth potential in Iowa. While he remains neutral in the primary race, he’s appreciated her emphasis on rural issues. While she’s emphasized bringing Americans together, he said her campaign lacks the kind of easily summarized theme you can put on the four front-runners.
“For Pete it’s unity, for Biden it’s experience. Warren is big structural change and Bernie is revolution,” Link said. “I don’t know yet what that is for Senator Klobuchar. If she can identify that and articulate it, I think she can rise to that next level.”
Patrick Condon • 202-662-7452