How Astonishing Is Mayor Pete’s Rise?

Where the upstart candidate’s momentum is coming from—and how far it could take him in the Democratic primary.

Pete Buttigieg.
Pete Buttigieg.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

Things are going much better for Pete Buttigieg than he could have realistically hoped. This month has brought the South Bend, Indiana, mayor promising polling numbers, flattering coverage, and a stunning fundraising haul. He spent the first few days of his campaign teaching reporters how to pronounce his name; he’s spent the past few getting profiled by The Daily Show and appearing on Meet the Press. It’s been a remarkable rise for the 37-year-old, who unofficially entered the primary in late January with an exploratory committee but who won’t formally launch his bid for president until this weekend.

The latest batch of good news for Buttigieg came this week by way of two new national surveys, one each from HarrisX and Morning Consult, both of which have him solidly in the second tier of candidates—well behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, who remain out in front by a statistical mile, but right in the middle of the half-dozen credible contenders bunched up behind the two favorites. The RealClearPolitics national average is starting to tell a similar story. Last month, Mayor Pete was having a moment; this month, it looks like he has an actual chance.

Still, a bucket of cold context is in order. Buttigieg may be “the Democratic upstart of the moment” or “the hottest candidate in the land,” in the words of some of this week’s coverage, but only when viewed through the lens of expectations. By most real-world metrics, he’s performing roughly as well as Cory Booker or Amy Klobuchar, both of whom have far more endorsements, nearly as much cash, and roughly the same polling numbers as Buttigieg but who haven’t received the kind of fawning coverage he has of late. Kirsten Gillibrand might be willing to trade places with Buttigieg at the moment, but I don’t think Elizabeth Warren or Beto O’Rourke would—even as the former struggles to raise money and the latter draws critical coverage for simply holding steady after entering the race with a record-breaking bang.

Here’s an oversimplified timeline of Buttigieg’s ascent to the middle tier: He started campaigning in January, began to get noticed with some real talk about packing the Supreme Court in February, received rave reviews for his CNN town hall performance the following month, and then kicked off April with a fundraising report of $7 million, which ultimately placed him below Sanders ($18.2 million), Kamala Harris ($12 million), and O’Rourke ($9.4 million), and above Booker ($5.2 million) and Klobuchar ($5.1 million) on the unofficial first-quarter leaderboard. No one saw that coming.

Along the way there was plenty of excitement about his potential to make history as the first openly gay nominee of a major party, along with the related conversation about how his sexuality intersects with his lived experience as a white man. There were also the charming anecdotes about his nerdiness that proved catnip for certain swaths of Twitter, a narrative that overshadowed the reality that his reputation as a Big Thinker has largely yet to translate into policy specifics—unlike a certain other second-tier candidate who also has Harvard on her résumé. All the while, Buttigieg’s traditional biography—Rhodes scholar, McKinsey consultant, Navy officer—has won him fans among the establishment set.

After that impressive start, Buttigieg remains on the upswing. He was mentioned a total of 216 times on Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN between March 31 and April 6, according to FiveThirtyEight, which counted cable news mentions of the candidates in the race (i.e., not Biden). The only candidates talked about more were Sanders (551) and O’Rourke (300). Following Buttigieg on the list: Harris (198), Tim Ryan (165), Warren (163), and Julian Castro (69). The frequency with which Ryan was mentioned is telling: With 24 hours to fill in a day, the talking heads are desperate for something, anything, new to talk about.

This isn’t a knock on the media for looking beyond the usual suspects. This is how things are supposed to work, generally speaking. The political press casts an increasingly wide net, which gives more candidates the chance to make their pitches to voters, and then voters decide whether those candidates are worth more attention. Polling and fundraising are imperfect metrics, but they’re the best the media has when the first nominating contests are still 10 months away. In a Democratic primary that has so far been lacking in surprises, Mayor Pete is a clear exception. And given the ongoing concerns about Biden’s behavior around women, it also seems like a particularly good time for moderate Democrats to consider their options.

For all of Buttigieg’s online buzz, it’s important to remember that Twitter is not the real world. He remains largely unknown IRL. He is currently at 2.9 percent in the RealClearPolitics national average, good for seventh place. If 2.9 percent doesn’t sound like a lot, well, it’s because it isn’t. Buttigieg’s support was within the margin of error in five of the seven polls that make up that average, including the new one from HarrisX, which was released Monday evening. (A sixth survey, the Harvard-Harris Poll, did not calculate margin of error). The one exception was the Morning Consult survey, released Tuesday morning, which found Buttigieg at 5 percent nationally, up from 1 percent a month ago.

Given how static the polling has been in the (very) early days of the primary, Buttigieg’s subtle bump is important—elections by definition are popularity contests, after all—but it obscures the reality that 1 in 2 Democrats surveyed by Morning Consult still have not heard of him and roughly 2 in 3 have no opinion about him. His national profile really is on the rise, but he has a long way to go before he’s in the same ballpark as Warren, O’Rourke, or Harris—let alone Biden and Sanders, who currently enjoy near-universal name recognition. For now, then, Buttigieg’s standing is largely a matter of perspective: His current position looks remarkable given where he started, but it’s also a long way from where he’ll need to finish.