Sen. Bernie Sanders’ supporters should be thanking Pete Buttigieg right now.
Sure, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, hogged the spotlight Tuesday night, declaring himself “victorious” before any of the actual results had been reported, and Sanders still very much appeared to be competitive. That move is looking ever-dodgier as the actual numbers have dripped in: Sanders not only leads the popular vote by a comfortable margin but is close to pulling ahead on Iowa’s traditional measure of “state delegate equivalents.”
A bit of stolen glory, however, is really a small price to pay for the service Buttigieg is providing the Vermont senator’s campaign. Mayor Pete seems to be clearing Sanders’ path to the Democratic nomination by crippling their common rivals without actually carving out a clear route to win himself.
Sanders’ campaign has always faced two key questions. First, could he consolidate the party’s left wing behind him, or would he and Sen. Elizabeth Warren undermine each other by splitting that vote? Second, even if Sanders could win the battle for the party’s progressives, would that be enough to overcome Joe Biden, who seemed to have a lock on moderate and minority voters?
Buttigieg has helped on both fronts by sapping support from both Warren and Biden, whom his backers consistently list as their second choice candidates. His performance in Iowa pushed the Massachusetts senator to third and the former vice president to fourth. Next week’s primary in New Hampshire could very well be a repeat performance. Both Sanders and Buttigieg appear to be rising in the polls there. Meanwhile, Biden is sinking toward third, and Warren is in a distant fourth.
If the final vote shapes up that way, it will be a dream scenario for Sanders. It’s not clear that Warren’s campaign can survive consecutive disappointments in the first two nominating contests. She’s already polling well behind in South Carolina and Nevada, and losing more momentum won’t help. Sure, it’s possible that Warren could limp to Super Tuesday after a string of third- and fourth-place finishes, but even if she does, many of her supporters might defect to Sanders, since he’ll be the progressive with a promising chance of winning. As for Biden: He might still be able to pull out a win in South Carolina, but he’ll still look weak, and between Buttigieg and Mike Bloomberg—whose entire strategy is premised on a strong performance on Super Tuesday, and thus is 100 percent guaranteed to be around for it—Biden won’t have the moderate lane to himself.
In short, Buttigieg is helping to consolidate the left and split the moderates, creating ideal conditions for a Sanders win. Meanwhile, there’s still little sign the man from McKinsey has a real shot himself. Even with his recent success, he’s still polling at fifth nationally, now behind Bloomberg, and hasn’t shown a pulse with minority voters yet. If he does somehow manage to knock out Biden entirely, it might actually be counterproductive. According to Morning Consult, the most popular second choice among the ex-VP’s voters is Sanders, followed by Bloomberg, and then Warren (this is your regular reminder that Americans don’t vote strictly based on ideology). There’s a reason that FiveThirtyEight is giving the democratic socialist a roughly 50 percent shot at the nomination right now, versus 1 in 30 for Buttigieg.
Buttigieg doesn’t deserve all the credit for kneecapping Sanders’ competition. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who campaigned as a moderate with both comprehensible syntax and a decent election record, also helped drag down Biden’s performance in Iowa.* In South Carolina, Tom Steyer seems to be cutting into Biden’s lead. And Bloomberg himself is starting to look like the most well-funded spoiler candidate in history.
What makes Buttigieg’s role a bit unique is that he’s the one candidate who was positioned to wreck things for both the true moderates and Warren. Last year, Warren seemed as if she might become the front-runner by establishing herself as the left-wing candidate who least threatened the Democratic establishment. But Buttigieg helped stop the Massachusetts senator’s rise by attacking her support for “Medicare for All” on the debate stage and presenting himself as an alternative for voters who wanted an eloquent wonk with sterling academic credentials. Never mind that Pete himself seemed to flip his position on Medicare for All early in the campaign so he could compete in the moderate lane. He was the guy who could both attack Warren over it and pilfer a substantial share of her potential voters. His effort might now deliver the nomination to Sanders. Buttigieg’s younger, pro-Bernie self would probably be proud.
Correction, Feb. 6, 2020: This post originally misspelled Amy Klobuchar’s last name.
Support our 2020 coverage
Slate is covering the election issues that matter to you. Support our work with a Slate Plus membership. You’ll also get a suite of great benefits.Join Slate Plus