Pete Buttigieg will win the Iowa caucuses on February 3rd. And he’ll win the New Hampshire primary on February 11th as well.
And on February 29th comes South Carolina.
Those first two sentences are predictions. The third is a reminder to Pete supporters of a date the press has them believing will either extend the rise of Pete Buttigieg to a level of invincibility, or stop the campaign in its tracks.
The press generally leaves out the third option: Neither of these things may happen.
As soon as the media can grab hold of a narrative that defines a seemingly insurmountable obstacle for a candidate, they run with it. “Warren’s healthcare plan is too extreme.” “Biden has lost his mental fortitude.” “Harris is all sound bite, no substance.” “Sanders can’t grow his base.” “Pete Buttigieg is polling low with African-Americans.”
They’re all as sure of these statements as they were of something else in 2016: “Hillary Clinton is a shoe-in.”
There has been a steady visceral momentum for Pete Buttigieg since early spring. He slipped a bit between his inaugural rise – fueled by, yes, the media – and where he stands now: at the top of the pile in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But the press has South Carolina looming over his candidacy like a Friday soap-opera cliffhanger, complete with nail-biting questions no one can yet answer: Will Pete survive South Carolina? Is his upfront success an outlier? Will the golden boy candidate be unmasked as a mere mortal with an irreparable hole in his support?
A Buttigieg win in South Carolina would be a game-changer, but what exactly is the definition of a win for Pete Buttigieg there? Biden is currently polling at mid-40s in the Palmetto State, though as Pete points out (correctly, I believe), much of that is based on familiarity alone. Joe may not be anyone’s actual choice, but when you show them a list of candidates, his is the name they point to and can recognize.
Of course, Pete finishing first in South Carolina would be a magnificent accomplishment, and one that would have Trump and his boss in Moscow frantically re-directing their phony investigations. But there is more than one scenario where the Buttigieg campaign would rightly be able to claim a victory on its path to the nomination.
Consider these possibilities, all of which assume Pete comes out on top in the first two races, reflecting the current standings.
Scenario #1.) Pete wins Iowa, wins New Hampshire, and yes… wins South Carolina: It’s not impossible. It’s becoming a truism that as people get to know Pete, they recognize him as an undeniably intelligent, thoughtful, responsible candidate, and throw him their support. That’s why Iowa and New Hampshire are finally going his way. No one will argue that Pete’s success in those states is driven by the campaign’s investment in time, field offices, and money. They’re playing nearly every note correctly. But several weeks ago, who could say they saw it coming?
Pete jumped a breathtaking 16 points in Iowa between September and November, and 15 points in New Hampshire during the same period. In the latter state, Pete’s net favorability is at 65%, versus 39% for Warren and 31% for Biden.
Turning people on to a new message is an endurance race. The polls are always catching up to what people on the ground are already feeling. If Pete is making inroads in South Carolina, we won’t see it yet, as all eyes are pinned to Iowa. Meanwhile, the same old negative polls for Pete in South Carolina get repeated over and over.
In other words… Pete is not doing well in South Carolina until the moment the polls catch up and tell us that he is. Combine that with the distinct possibility that voters claiming to support Biden have yet to actually stand and be counted. They’re all witnessing his continual shaky debates and verbal blunders, coming at them faster than ammo out of a wayward Pez dispenser. Liking Joe and thinking he can successfully debate Trump are two different things.
Scenario #2.) Pete wins Iowa, wins New Hampshire, and comes in second – and strong – to Biden in South Carolina. Here is the scenario I’m putting my chips on. I don’t believe any group will be moved as a whole, even if Pete has clear triumphs in the first two states. What I do think is that he’s the candidate with the most likability (see Scenario #1), and, similarly to Biden, has the most cautious approach on health care. With that thinking, both Biden and Buttigieg do well here, leaving Warren and Sanders picking up the scraps, and the far left voters in the party re-thinking their choice.
Scenario #3.) Pete wins Iowa, wins New Hampshire, and captures notable support in South Carolina. Still a win for Pete. If he is capable of only moving the dial a notch or two in the state, an argument can be made he’s forging progress with the African-American community. To be sure, there’s much more work to do, but Pete comes out of South Carolina as a candidate who acknowledges a possible Achilles heel and is clearly doing something to address it. The “he’ll do poorly in South Carolina” argument evaporates, Pete is afforded more time to make his case nationally, and the campaign moves on to Super Tuesday (March 3rd,).
It seems clear that the Pete-narrative from now until next November will include some haunting suggestion that African-Americans won’t vote for him, and that will lead to four more years of The Donald. I would argue that Pete may not be doing as badly in South Carolina as we’re being led to believe. But if I intend to tout Pete’s polling numbers where they’re good, I have to acknowledge where they need work. And for the moment, South Carolina is a hill to still be climbed.
What I do believe at the end of the day is this: the majority of voters, all states, all colors, have yet to commit firmly to a single candidate. The notion that African-Americans will never support Pete Buttigieg is not the same as the notion that they currently aren’t supporting Pete Buttigieg, but may do so as he continues reaching out to them.
More than anything, Pete Buttigieg will go on lifting his name recognition across the board, and presenting himself as exactly what he is to voters of all colors: an antidote to Trumpism and the swirling, choking cloud of hot racism that accompanies it wherever it goes.