Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks to voters during a campaign rally this month in Waverly, Iowa. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Rather than riding a swell of media attention or a viral moment, Pete Buttigieg has ascended to the top of Iowa's Democratic presidential primary polling by channeling a substantial fundraising haul into TV ads and a robust presence inside the state.

Why it matters: With $2.3m spent so far on Iowa TV ads, more than 100 staff on the ground and 20 field offices, Buttigieg's investment reflects his campaign's bet that Iowa's Feb. 3 caucus is key to his chances as an underdog candidate from the Midwest.

The big picture: Buttigieg's national polling average continues to lag way behind Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and he's struggling with black voters.

Only billionaire Tom Steyer, at $7.1m, has spent more on TV ads in Iowa, according to Kantar/Campaign Media Analysis on FiveThirtyEight.

  • Sanders, who has raised $10m more than Buttigieg this cycle, is just slightly behind him in the state, spending $2.0m on Iowa TV ads.
  • Biden has spent $820k and Warren just $200k on Iowa TV so far.
  • Buttigieg's campaign credits a strong October debate performance and subsequent post-debate outreach as a key factor for the rise in the polls.

"A lot of people don’t know who Pete is, at all," a campaign spokesman tells Axios. "So we are going to continue to find ways to introduce him to new audiences.”

Between the lines: Buttigieg, who raised $19.2 million with $23 million cash on hand in Q3, still struggles with a relatively small organic media profile.

  • 3,400 articles have been written about Buttigieg since the first week of October, compared to 44,000 for Biden, 28,000 for Warren and 24,000 for Sanders, according to data from NewsWhip provided exclusively to Axios.
  • Those articles have produced 36m social media interactions (likes, comments, shares) for Biden, 18m for Warren and Sanders, and 2m for Buttigieg, per NewsWhip data.
  • In that time, Buttigieg has been mentioned on cable news 2.4k times. That compares with 22.5k mentions for Biden, 8k for Warren and 6.1k for Sanders, according to the Television News Archive.

His Iowa polling rise has provided much of the recent burst in media attention.

Yes, but: Iowa's demographics (91% white) are particularly favorable to Buttigieg. In another early primary state, South Carolina, where African Americans may comprise close to two-thirds of Democratic primary voters, a Quinnipiac poll this week has Buttigieg at just 6%.

The bottom line: Buttigieg ultimately will need to broaden his support to extend his popularity beyond Iowa.

Go deeper: New Axios-NewsWhip 2020 attention tracker

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Dion Rabouin, author of Markets
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