Will Buttigieg Pick up the Pieces?

September 12,  2019

The Democratic presidential field is badly divided between progressives and moderates, and none of the top three candidates is likely to defeat Donald Trump in 2020. It seems probable that no candidate will secure a first-ballot majority of delegates in advance of the Democratic convention next summer. The choice of candidate may therefore have to be brokered at the convention. For several reasons, Pete Buttigieg may be the strongest contender.

The latest Quinnipiac poll, from August 28, shows the Democratic field almost evenly divided between moderates and progressives: 32% of respondents favored Joe Biden, a percentage slightly outmatched by the combined totals of Elizabeth Warren (19%) and Bernie Sanders (15%). Exacerbating the party’s divisions, and making them more dangerous for Democrats’ prospects next year, is that every one of the front runners is a fatally weak candidate.

At 76, Joe Biden is too old, and his age is really showing. It shows in his gaffes. It shows in his scarcity at public events on the campaign trail. It shows in his feeble voice and palpable lack of energy on the stump. He visibly lacks enthusiasm for the campaign and struggles to articulate why he wants to be President. Biden also has no message, no vision for America’s future. His “message” is nostalgia for the Obama administration, a time when Americans were so alienated from the political system that they took the ultimate gamble, choosing change at any price by putting a moral monster in the White House. Finally, Biden clings to a fantasy of bipartisanship, of “working across the aisle,” when there’s no one on the other side willing to compromise on anything of substance.

At 77, Bernie Sanders is also too old, but that may be the least of his problems. For reasons that may be clear only to him, he insists on describing himself as a “socialist.” This label alone will be enough to ensure a Trump victory. While Americans show much confusion about what policies constitute socialism, in general they clearly favor capitalism over socialism. For example, a recent Monmouth University poll showed that 57% of Americans think that socialism is incompatible with American values, while only 29% see it as compatible.

Sanders has also staked out positions that are too far to the left for independent and moderate Republican voters to stomach. Elizabeth Warren has joined him in some of these positions, making her also a weak candidate. Their greatest mistake has been their insistence on an immediate transition to “Medicare for All.” They propose to eliminate all private health insurance, including the employer-based plans that serve almost 160 million Americans. Sanders and Warren want to replace all private plans with a single government program, and raise taxes to pay for it.

While many Americans seem to like the phrase “Medicare for All,” polling data show that they don’t understand what it means, and their support evaporates when they learn it means losing the insurance they have today. While a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll shows a slim majority of Americans favoring “Medicare-for-all,” it also shows that 67% of these respondents believe that they will get to keep their current health insurance under such a plan. A February Hill-HarrisX survey showed that only about one in ten registered voters favor a Medicare-for-all plan if it means abolishing private insurance. Their health insurance plan, by itself, is probably enough to cost Sanders or Warren the general election.

So if none of these weak candidates has secured a first-ballot majority come next July 13, why should Pete Buttigieg get the nod? Partly because he is the ideal compromise candidate, progressive enough for Warren and Sanders supporters, but crucially favoring a public option rather than immediate transition to single-payer healthcare. He is unfailingly likeable, fabulously articulate, and intellectually impressive without talking down to the voters. Buttigieg has made no enemies among the other candidates, scrupulously refraining from attacking them. His youth and homosexuality make him a historic candidate who would excite the party’s activist base. Although he currently takes only 5% in the national polls of likely Democratic primary voters, he has reached double digits in some recent Iowa polls, and he was the top fundraiser for the second quarter, taking in almost $25 million. He can afford a robust primary campaign that may bring him into the convention with a respectable number of delegates, enough to position him as the compromise candidate. This may be a long-shot scenario, but it is worth considering.