How Mayor Pete Can Win. And How He Could Lose.

Welcome to a rare, all-politics version of the French Press. Today’s edition is dominated by the young mayor of South Bend, Pete Buttigieg. Yesterday was a big day for him. In a respected national poll, he surged to second place for the first time (Warren dropped to fourth), and then he trended twice on Twitter—first for a bad reason, then for an effective effort at damage control. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Warren’s swoon continues. Today’s edition:

  1. Pete Buttigieg can win.

  1. You’re insane. Pete Buttigieg will lose.

  1. The S.S. Warren is dead in the water, listing to port.

Yep, Pete Buttigieg can win. Here’s how.

It’s official—Mayor Pete is in the midst of a second campaign boomlet. The first wave of coverage this summer put him on the map, stole some of the “young, inspiring politician” thunder from Beto, and then seemed to crest—leaving Buttigieg at either the top of the second tier of candidates or the bottom of the first tier. Well, now he’s booming again, and he’s firmly in the first tier. Tuesday, for the first time, a national poll put him above Sanders and Warren:

Add this to the recent polling showing Buttigieg with a meaningful lead in Iowa, and we now have to seriously ask—could this be real? Could the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, possibly win the Democratic nomination and then beat Donald Trump? 

I’ll first make the case for yes, and the case for yes depends on two things—the temperament of the electorate and the talent of the candidate.

First, let’s talk temperament. It’s a truism of American politics that when American voters want change, they go for change. A nation still hungover from the scandalous, imperial presidency of Richard Nixon turned to a Baptist Sunday school teacher from Plains, Georgia, a man so humble that he walked during his inaugural parade. When that presidency flamed out, America turned to a movie star. The contrasts between Barack Obama and Donald Trump are stark and obvious. 

Trump is such a singular figure that any challenger in 2020 will represent profound change, but the contrast between Trump and Buttigieg is incredibly stark. Young/old, gay/straight, wonkish technocrat/pugilist populist, volunteer veteran/draft-avoider, hyper-articulate/word-salad maker, calm/angry. Yes, they’re both white men, but beyond that it’s as if they were born on different planets. If an electorate—specifically the Trump-weary suburban electorate— wants a break from the exhausting Trumpist present without flirting with socialism or risking the presidency on a man who’s lost his fastball, then Mayor Pete has positioned himself quite well as both profoundly different and quite safe. 

And that brings me to the talent question. There are multiple candidates who—in theory—can make the same pitch Buttigieg makes. Amy Klobuchar comes to mind. So does Corey Booker. (Kamala Harris’s astounding authoritarian streak makes her fundamentally different from the rest of the “moderate” lane.) But so far they haven’t. At least not yet. Their defenders might point to Klobuchar’s gender or Booker’s race and blame sexism and racism, but it’s far from clear to me that a gay male starts with a measurable built-in advantage over either a white woman or a black man—especially since the last two Democratic nominees were a white woman and a black man. 

Honestly, Mayor Pete has just been better at campaigning and debating than his opponents—at least so far. He’s been consistently sharp on the debate stage. In hindsight his attacks on Elizabeth Warren’s Medicare for All plan in the October debate may have done more damage than was immediately understood. And he’s established (again, so far) that he can handle attacks and respond adroitly to unexpected adversity. 

Yes, I know that Buttigieg skated through the November debate largely unscathed, but when Tulsi Gabbard came straight at him, he had an effective, firm response. I know some readers will say that it’s “only Tulsi,” but remember that she was an effective enough debater to smash Kamala Harris earlier in the campaign. When Gabbard came for him six days ago, he was ready:

And on Tuesday he responded to an absolute haymaker from the left. The day began with a scorching article by The Root’s Michael Harriot rocketing across the length and breadth of Twitter. Titled “Pete Buttigieg is a Lying MF,” it scorched Buttigieg for these comments from eight years ago:

“Kids need to see evidence that education is going to work for them,” Buttigieg explained whitely, when he was running for mayor in 2011. You’re motivated because you believe that at the end of your education, there is a reward; there’s a stable life; there’s a job. And there are a lot of kids—especially [in] the lower-income, minority neighborhoods, who literally just haven’t seen it work. There isn’t someone who they know personally who testifies to the value of education.”

Harriot’s assessment of those remarks? Well, he was not pleased:

I want to be clear: Pete Buttigieg is a lying mother****er.

This is not a misunderstanding. This is not a misstatement. Pete Buttigieg went to the best educational institutions America has to offer and he—more than anyone on the goddamned planet—knows that everything he just said is a baldfaced lie.

Let’s punt on the actual merits of Buttigieg’s argument (Harriot was furious at Mayor Pete for allegedly downplaying the legacy and reality of American racism); the article hit Buttigieg where it hurts—highlighting the singular weakness of his campaign so far. He has very little black support. This could have been one of those tipping point moments that takes on a life of its own—repeated and amplified on cable news to the point where it becomes conventional wisdom: Mayor Pete alienates black voters.

So, what did Buttigieg do? He called Harriot, and then Mayor Pete trended again, that same day, but for a better reason. Harriot wrote a second piece called “Pete Buttigieg Called Me. Here’s What Happened.” Note the different tone:

He is not the perfect candidate nor will there be one. But this does not mean the Democratic Party is divided. The entire point of the primary process is for voters to dictate their concerns to the candidates and for candidates to learn from voters. Black America wants their party to emerge victorious but not if we have to offer our votes as a living sacrifice for the sake of “party unity.” What good is a white savior if he doesn’t save us?

And, as I told the mayor, the article wasn’t meant to inspire outrage. Its purpose was to make a necessary point about black voters and real issues. There is no way that I can know if he is genuinely interested in engaging black voters, attacking discrimination or crossing the racial divide. There are an infinite number of candidates who have waded into black barbershops or sashayed into black pulpits to assure us that they were on our side when they were only interested in our vote. I am not smart or prescient enough to tell the difference.

The only thing I actually know about Pete Buttigieg is that he is a white man.

But Pete Buttigieg listened, which is all you can ask a white man to do.

Again, I’m not adjudicating the merits. There are readers who will roll their eyes at this exchange and readers who will nod along with everything Harriot (or Buttigieg) says. I’ve got ideologically diverse readers! But the politics of the exchange are fascinating. In one 12-hour span, Buttigieg not only defused a potential problem, he turned it into a good-news story. 

It’s a small thing, yes. But a fundamental part of a presidential campaign—especially for unknown candidates like Buttigieg—is doing what they can to ensure that all the “moments” break in their favor, and that’s exactly what Mayor Pete has done—at least so far.

Are you high? Mayor Pete has no chance.

Okay, this part is just all too obvious. The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, will beat the former vice president, several sitting senators, and a pair of billionaires to get the Democratic nomination? And if he gets the nomination, he’ll unseat an incumbent president in a time of relative peace and prosperity? Are you kidding me? 

Mayor Pete has momentum, but as we’ve seen countless times in recent presidential politics, rising candidates are often one gaffe from oblivion. Voters are flirting, not dating, and definitely not yet marrying, so there’s a very small margin for error. Joe Biden can throw a verbal grenade into every debate, and because he’s a known quantity, his support doesn’t budge. But you can virtually guarantee that a single big mistake will doom Mayor Pete.

We’ve seen it happen before, fairly and unfairly. GOP voters flirted with Rick Perry in 2011, and then … “Oops.” Marco Rubio was rising in New Hampshire in 2016, then he made a memorable, bizarre lapse into repeated rote talking points under pressure from Chris Christie. There is nothing truly “fair” about judging either man by those moments—they negated none of their considerable accomplishments—but such is the fickle nature of an emerging public consensus. 

As a candidate, Mayor Pete is having what we basketball fans call a “heat check” moment. He’s hitting fadeaway threes with a hand in his face. He’s splashing shots from deep and drawing contact for and-ones at the rim. How long can it continue? How long can he maintain his debate poise or avoid a viral gaffe in the handshake line? And make no mistake, if he continues to surge, his rivals will come for him—with a vengeance:

In the still-crowded Democratic presidential field, one man has triggered an outpouring of resentment and angst.

It’s not Donald Trump.

As Mr. Buttigieg, the millennial mayor of a town smaller than a New York City Council district, rises in the polls, he has struck a nerve with his Democratic rivals.

Many of their campaigns have griped privately about the attention and cash directed toward Mr. Buttigieg. They say he is too inexperienced to be electable and that his accomplishments don’t merit the outsize appeal he has with elite donors and voters. His public punditry about the race has prompted eye rolls from older rivals who view him as a know-it-all.

An equivalent level of hostility leveled at Mitt Romney during his first primary run undoubtedly hurt him, at least at the margins. Mike Huckabee, for example, campaigned as a virtual guided missile, aimed straight at Mitt. When enmity starts to leak out into the public, enmity matters. 

Mayor Pete’s surge is fragile, so very fragile. He still has an enormous mountain to climb. He’s yet to register significant black support, Biden’s lead remains stubborn and large, and at some point voters may look at a man so young and simply say, “Not yet.” 

They can’t seal the bulkheads, and the S.S. Warren is listing to port.

A mere eight days ago, I spent more than1,500 words explaining how and why Elizabeth Warren had blown her moment. The combination of a terrible Medicare for All funding plan rollout, bad polling news in the Midwest, and a mediocre (at best) debate response to Buttigieg had left her losing polling momentum nationally and in the early states—especially in Iowa. 

The news just keeps getting worse. Warren is now fourth in the polling averages for Iowa and New Hampshire:

And look at the sharp downward trend in her RealClearPolitics national average (she’s the brown line):

And moving from the objective to the subjective, it’s clear that there’s only increasing Democratic concern about the political viability of Medicare for All. Warren threw her eggs in the Bernie Sanders basket but was more evasive in her presentation and far less credible in her plan. Bernie is bluntly truthful about expenses and taxes. Warren, by contrast, is quite obviously cooking the books. 

Sanders is, for better or worse, an ideologue. He’s a true believer, and the natural leader of a movement centered on socialist ideas. Warren is much more of an opportunist, but she’s an opportunist (her Native-American gambit was the purest form of opportunism, discarded the instant it became inconvenient) who tries hard to convince you that she’s a true believer. Democrats are starting to see through the façade. 

One final thing … 

I don’t ordinarily link to college basketball highlights. I don’t like college ball. I despise the NCAA, and I don’t like watching defense-heavy brick festivals. (You can’t pay me to watch the University of Virginia play). But I do love the University of Kentucky, and I do loathe Duke. So, in the righteous spirit of loathing the Blue Devils, I share this great, great moment when Stephen F. Austin stunned Duke at home—set to the Titanic song (yes, it’s an old meme, but it’s still good):

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