South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg surges to third place in Iowa in new 2020 poll

Buttigieg polled at 0 percent in the same poll in January — now, he has double-digit support

Published March 25, 2019 6:55PM (EDT)

Mayor Pete Buttigieg, of South Bend, Indiana (Getty/Alex Wong)
Mayor Pete Buttigieg, of South Bend, Indiana (Getty/Alex Wong)

Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old Democratic mayor of South Bend, Indiana, jumps to third place in a new poll of the 2020 Iowa caucus released Sunday.

The survey, conducted by Emerson Polling, reveals that 11 percent of likely Democratic Iowa caucus-goers would vote for Buttigieg to be their 2020 presidential nominee, placing the candidate in third behind just former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Biden, who has not yet entered the race, received 25 percent of the vote, while 24 percent of likely caucus-goers said they would pick Sanders. The only other candidate to receive double-digit support was Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who was the favorite of 10 percent of respondents.

"The biggest surprise in this poll is Mayor Pete. Last week, we saw him inching up in our national poll, and now he’s in double digits in Iowa," Spencer Kimball, director of the Emerson Poll, said in a statement. "America is going to be asking, 'Who is Mayor Pete'?"

Buttigieg, who has formed an exploratory committee but has not officially thrown his hat into the presidential ring, polled at 0 percent in Emerson's January Iowa poll, which was conducted before many candidates jumped into the 2020 race. In that poll of of likely Iowa caucus voters, Biden led with 29 percent, followed by Harris, who had announced her presidential campaign just prior to the poll, at 18 percent. Sanders, who had not formally declared at the time, came in third with 15 percent.

Buttigieg, who is vying to become the first openly-gay presidential nominee from a major political party, was first elected mayor of his hometown in 2011 at age 29, making him the youngest mayor of a midsize U.S. city. He graduated from Harvard University, where he hung out with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg; "summer-interned for Ted Kennedy, worked for John Kerry’s presidential campaign, won a Rhodes Scholarship, learned Arabic in Tunisia . . . and volunteered for active duty in Afghanistan while serving as mayor, came out as gay in the local newspaper, married a schoolteacher live on YouTube, turned heads in a dark-horse bid to lead the Democratic National Committee, and had the New York Times's Frank Bruni gushing about him as potentially the "'First Gay President'— all by age 36," the Washington Post's Bob Moser wrote of Buttigieg in a profile of the mayor titled, "Could Pete Buttigieg Become the First Millennial President?"

When competing to head up the Democratic National Committee, Buttigieg told Salon that party leaders needed to remain aware that politics should be about principles rather than about individual people — a lesson he said Democrats needed to learn with respect to former President Barack Obama, but also in their efforts to obtain the email addresses of the nearly 3 million people who donated to Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign.

"Whatever the mechanisms are, we need to make sure people have a good reason to give to the party and become involved," Buttigieg said at the time.

Buttigieg announced in December that he would not seek a third term as mayor of the Indiana city, generating buzz and speculation that he would join what is expected to be a very crowded Democratic field that already includes high-profile Democrats with experience in higher office. But, as the Washington Post's Annie Linskey noted in December, "Buttigieg would come to a presidential race familiar with a part of the country that Democrats lost badly in 2016 but regained somewhat in the midterm elections. States in the area, including Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, will be key targets for both parties in 2020."

The results of the latest survey of Iowa reveals Buttigieg's national profile and support have increased dramatically in the last few months. Earlier this month, he announced his campaign had met the 65,000 individual donor threshold put in place by the Democratic National Committee, guaranteeing him a spot in the party's first debate for the 2020 presidential nomination. Additionally, his strong performance in Sunday's Emerson poll was bolstered by placing second among 18-29-year-olds with 22 percent. Sanders led that category with 44 percent.

"If Buttigieg is able to maintain his momentum, his candidacy appears to be pulling from the same demographic of young voters as Sanders, and that could become a problem for Sanders," Kimball added.

The Emerson poll of 249 likely Democratic caucus voters in Iowa was conducted between March 21-24. The margin of error for the sample is plus or minus 6.2 percentage points.

By Shira Tarlo

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2020 Election All Salon Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Joe Biden Kamala Harris News & Politics Pete Buttigieg