Politics

The Excluded Middle

In Iowa, Pete Buttigieg tries to claim a consensus lane that may not exist.

Pete Buttigieg finishes his appearance at a campaign event January 31, 2020 in Sioux City, Iowa.
Pete Buttigieg finishes his appearance at a campaign event January 31, 2020 in Sioux City, Iowa. Win McNamee/Getty Images

ANKENY, Iowa—Neither Joe Biden nor Bernie Sanders have a lot to say about Pete Buttigieg in the closing stretch of the Iowa caucuses, but Pete Buttigieg has plenty to say about them.

“I’ve seen Vice President Biden making the case that we cannot afford to take a risk on a new person now,” Buttigieg said at a sizable rally in Ankeny, a Des Moines suburb, on Thursday night. “I would argue that at a time like this, what you can’t afford to take a risk of is falling back on the familiar, because history has shown us we have to look to the future in order to win.”

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And Bernie? No thanks, pal. “Senator Sanders is speaking to goals for America that I think we all share, [but] is nevertheless offering an approach that tells folks who are not sure about going all the way to one side that they don’t fit,” Buttigieg said.

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By contrasting himself against the two leading candidates—one representing the centrist pole, the other the left—Buttigieg is positioning himself as the middle-ground candidate. While Sanders and Biden argue over their Iraq War votes or their records on Social Security, Buttigieg dismisses those disputes as bickering over questions from decades past that voters are tired of hearing about. His frequent references to setting aside “old” arguments and looking toward the “future” usefully remind likely caucus-goers that he, unlike the frontrunners, will not become an octogenarian early in his first term.

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His sales pitch about being neither Biden nor Sanders has found a customer base. The question is whether that base is big enough to sustain a candidacy. Speaking to Buttigieg supporters in Iowa about previous candidates they’ve supported this cycle is like walking through a graveyard of candidates who failed to thrive in the “consensus” position between Biden and Sanders. Yvonne Welshhons, of Ankeny, told me that she was originally supportive of Beto O’Rourke, but he turned out to be a “flash in the pan.” Cindy Blay, from Ankeny, also had looked at Kamala* Harris before committing to Buttigieg in September, as had Barbara Nelson, who also considered Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren but discounted the latter given her support for Medicare for All. (“That’s a hard one to swallow,” Nelson said.)

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It’s hard to find and hold a stable preference in the middle ground. Michael Van Essen, from Mason City, has always considered Buttigieg his first choice—as a gay man, he said, he will feel “honored” to caucus “resolutely” for Buttigieg on Monday night—but his second choices have rotated between Harris, Booker, and Warren.

Harris, Booker, and O’Rourke all tried to occupy the middle, but couldn’t last long in the exposed turf between the trenches. Warren briefly seemed to have found her footing there early in the fall, before her rivals to the right used her Medicare for All position to shove her into the left camp. Warren is still around, even if her numbers are down, because there are plenty of left voters who want what the left is selling, not because she was able to keep moderate voters engaged. Similarly, moderates Biden and Klobuchar are there to serve the moderate voters who appreciate pragmatic accomplishments and the ability to win over lapsed Republicans.

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How is Buttigieg still standing there in the perilous center of things? He isn’t, really.

Many of the Buttigieg supporters I spoke to had considered either Biden or Klobuchar, who remained at the forefront of their second-choice preferences. None of them were considering Sanders.

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Francie and Howard Sonksen, of Mason City, who had leaned toward Biden until observing that the former vice-president was “past his prime” when they finally tuned into a debate, said they’d considered Sanders “too extreme” from the start. Van Essen said that he would vote for Sanders if he were the nominee, but “would rather not have to. Well, obviously I would rather not have to, I don’t want to at all.” These were voters who wanted one of the moderates to earn the nomination. And the member of the moderate lane they had landed on was Pete Buttigieg.

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Buttigieg may be pitting himself against Sanders and Biden, but he’s doing it on different terms. With Sanders, his objection is that his platform goes “all the way to one side”; with Biden, his objection is that he’s too “familiar” a face. Buttigieg presents himself as an ideological alternative to Sanders, but his point of contrast with Biden is simply that the Democrats need a newer model, with less Washington baggage.

Buttigieg may have first gained attention with assertive positions on eliminating the Electoral College and expanding the Supreme Court, but by summer’s end he had unsubtly transformed himself into something of a Biden backup. It was Buttigieg who did the shoving when Elizabeth Warren was shoved out of the “consensus” position, joining Amy Klobuchar to press her on whether her Medicare for All plan would require tax increases during an October debate that, in retrospect, was the most (only?) significant debate of the cycle.

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While Buttigieg claims that he’s reaching out to both the left and the right, his right arm is getting much more tired. In Mason City, and at other events he’s been doing around the state, he spoke about how pleased he was to see “future former Republicans” at his events who are “just ready to put this flavor of chaos behind us.” He is directly trying to win Iowa by expanding the caucus electorate to the right. Ankeny, where Biden held an event days earlier, is the ideal place to do so. In his 2016 run, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio ran a suburban-focused campaign that was internally dubbed the “Ankeny Strategy.” Other candidates, as the Washington Post reported at the time, “joked that it felt like Rubio was running to be mayor of the Des Moines suburb.”

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It’s been surprising speaking to voters in Iowa (a small sample of them, sure) and hearing how well the “lanes” theory of primary electorates is holding up. Usually such high-pundit methodologies for analyzing the thoughts of real human beings expire the first time the thoughts of a real human being are probed. But I have yet to meet the usual “Yeah, I’m stuck between Bernie and John Delaney” types. The left-wing voters are choosing between the left-wing candidates, and the moderates are choosing between the moderates. Maybe Pete Buttigieg is the special Obama-esque figure he’s pitching himself as, who can heal divisions both within the party and the country. But there’s no question to which division he belongs.

Correction, Jan. 31, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Kamala Harris’ first name.

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