Nov 20, 2019

Behind Pete Buttigieg's Iowa rise

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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Trump campaign attacks Buttigieg during Democratic debate

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee and "Black Voices for Trump" sent coordinated mass emails during the Democratic debate Wednesday attacking Mayor Pete Buttigieg for his record on race and policing in his hometown of South Bend, Indiana.

Why it matters: As Axios' Jonathan Swan reported on Sunday, top Republicans are taking Buttigieg seriously as a potential general election candidate after his breakout poll in Iowa and his rise in New Hampshire. Several top Trump advisers have raised concerns that Buttigieg is more talented than Joe Biden and that he will be harder to brand as a leftist radical than Sens. Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders.

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Buttigieg to face frontrunner scrutiny after surprise Iowa poll

Pete Buttigieg, Rochester, New Hampshire, Nov. 11. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Top Republicans are taking Pete Buttigieg seriously as a potential general election candidate after his breakout poll in Iowa. The respected Des Moines Register poll, released Saturday night, has Buttigieg at the top of the Democratic pack in Iowa.

What they're saying: "He'd be a fresh face with a message of unity and a more traditional Democratic program that's not as scary to suburbanites," Karl Rove told me. "His weaknesses would be in motivating African Americans and connecting with blue-collar middle America that's dubious of any Harvard-educated elites."

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Pete Buttigieg's mayoral transition will come at the perfect time

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Pete Buttigieg's term as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, ends in January — freeing up the rising 2020 candidate’s schedule and opening the doors to new potential fundraising avenues just weeks before the Iowa caucuses.

The big picture: Buttigieg hasn't been tied to his desk, but hometown responsibilities have occasionally taken him off the trail. Most notably, he paused campaigning in June after an officer-involved shooting of a black man sparked protests throughout his town.

Go deeperArrowNov 24, 2019