If you are Pete Buttigieg, you’d better get ready for your turn in the hot seat and expect incoming fire at Wednesday’s debate—probably sooner. The Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom poll of likely Democratic Caucus attendees released Saturday night showed the South Bend mayor in first place with 25 percent, 9 points ahead of Elizabeth Warren’s 16 percent, with Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders tied for fourth place with 15 percent. It puts the 37-year-old squarely in the crosshairs of his opponents and invites the kind of media scrutiny befitting a front-runner.
The two previous surveys taken in the last three weeks also indicated that Buttigieg was moving to the top tier. A Monmouth University poll showed basically a three-way tie for first place between Buttigieg (22 percent), Biden (19 percent), and Warren (18 percent), with Sanders in fourth (13 percent). Yet another survey from Quinnipiac University showed the top four even more bunched up, with Warren at 20 percent, Buttigieg at 19 percent, Sanders at 17 percent, and Biden at 15 percent. This has become a very competitive fight.
In New Hampshire, where the first primary will be held on Feb. 11, polls indicate a very tight race for first between Warren, Biden, and Sanders, but with Buttigieg moving up in almost a straight line. National polls, meanwhile, suggest that Biden is on top but declining, Warren in second but also giving up ground, Sanders picking up a little support, and Buttigieg well back but starting to climb.
Polling in primary elections, with their lower turnout levels than general elections, is tricky. But in caucus contests like Iowa, it is downright treacherous. That is why the Register/CNN/Mediacom poll is so closely watched. Conducted by J. Ann Selzer, a very highly regarded Des Moines-based pollster who has done the Register’s polling for years, the survey has built a track record for capturing what is really going on in the state.
Warren had been on the move but has hit headwinds over the last month. She’ll be under pressure at the Atlanta debate to regain her lost momentum as well as push back on the idea that she would have a more difficult time than other Democrats winning a general election. At the same time, Biden is trying to position himself as the center-left, more-electable alternative to Warren. But suddenly he has Buttigieg moving up or even passing him in that more-centrist lane. Amy Klobuchar is showing some signs of life as well.
Many voters will be taking a good look at Buttigieg, especially those who hadn’t taken him seriously before. The rap on Buttigieg is that while he comes across as cool as a cucumber, super-smart, and level-headed, he would be in a stronger position if he were 47 years old rather than 37, and the mayor of Indianapolis rather than South Bend.