Buttigieg shows signs of emerging from the Democratic pack

Pete Buttigieg, the relatively unknown mayor of South Bend, Ind., is showing signs that he could emerge as a serious contender in the 2020 race for the Democratic presidential nomination. 

The first piece of evidence signaling the 37-year-old Buttigieg could break from the pack chasing a group of big-name candidates came from an Emerson Polling survey this weekend that showed him trailing only former Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenAndrew Cuomo: Biden has best chance at 'main goal' of beating Trump Poll: Buttigieg tops Harris, O'Rourke as momentum builds Buttigieg responds to accusation of pushing a 'hate hoax' about Pence MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersAndrew Cuomo: Biden has best chance at 'main goal' of beating Trump Poll: Buttigieg tops Harris, O'Rourke as momentum builds Buttigieg responds to accusation of pushing a 'hate hoax' about Pence MORE (I-Vt.) in the Democratic race in Iowa.

Buttigieg won support from 11 percent of likely Democratic Iowa caucusgoers polled, behind Biden’s 25 percent and Sanders’s 24 percent. 

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It’s just one poll early in the presidential cycle, but it comes after Buttigieg has made positive headlines in recent weeks, including during a town hall event on CNN that left a number of party strategists and pundits impressed.

Buttigieg, the only gay man running for president, has also broken through with a few viral moments, most recently this weekend when he was asked by a Norwegian outlet to speak their language. 

The mayor, who speaks seven languages, did, and his answer instantly became a YouTube-worthy moment. 

Democrats once skeptical of the mayor with a hard-to-pronounce name are taking notice. 

“A couple of weeks ago I wasn’t giving him any attention at all, in part because I didn’t think he had a chance, but I am getting more and more intrigued,” said Jim Manley, the Democratic strategist and longtime Senate veteran. 

“The Buttigieg Boomlet is real,” added Democratic strategist Christy Setzer. “He’s everywhere, he’s authentic and he’s interesting and counterintuitive in his message — all of which makes him both a media darling and a serious source of intrigue for primary voters.” 

Biden, who has yet to enter the race, and Sanders have dominated most polls in the early stages of the 2020 race, which has settled into a two- or three-tiered competition in its early days. 

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisJulián Castro: Trump should be impeached for trying to obstruct justice 'in very concrete ways' Poll: Buttigieg tops Harris, O'Rourke as momentum builds Trump Jr. slams 2020 Dems as 'more concerned' about rights of murderers than legal gun owners MORE (D-Calif.) and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) have placed third in various polls, and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenJulián Castro: Trump should be impeached for trying to obstruct justice 'in very concrete ways' Poll: Biden tops Sanders nationally Pete Buttigieg: 'God doesn't have a political party' MORE (D-Mass.) is seen as another strong contender. 

After those candidates come another group who have generally trailed the top five contenders. 

Basil Smikle, the former executive director of the New York Democratic Party, said Buttigieg’s recent exposure could prove to be bad news for O’Rourke, who entered the race to much fanfare earlier this month. 

While Buttigieg is only now making a name for himself on the national political stage, he has been laying the groundwork for the last couple of years inside the party, beginning with his run for party chair two years ago. 

“He may be cutting into Beto’s lane a bit because he impressed a lot of people during his run … where he began developing a relationship with party insiders from every state,” Smikle said. 

Smikle added that Buttigieg also has a compelling message that is resonating with voters. 

“Where other candidates are running against Trump, he’s using a compelling backstory to run against Republican hypocrisy embodied by Pence and Trump enablers,” he said. “It’s a tactic that undermines Trumpism rather than Trump himself and potentially appeals to a wider swath of disaffected voters.” 

Buttigieg’s campaign would not comment on the Emerson poll. But his spokeswoman Lis Smith said the recent campaign stops and media appearances have translated to support for the mayor.

“We've always contended that the more people see Mayor Pete, the more they like him,” Smith said. “He’s bringing something completely different to the conversation as a millennial Midwestern mayor. His message of generational change is resonating with voters across the early states and beyond — we've seen a big uptick in interest in what he's offering.”

There are some skeptics, including a Democratic strategist who noted problems with the Emerson poll. 

“It’s comically ridiculous,” said the strategist, who called the poll a fluke because it had a margin of error of 6 points and only polled a couple hundred people. 

Others said that regardless of the Emerson poll, there’s no question Buttigieg is on a roll. 

“I think the biggest thing is he is seeing the benefit now of a long, and very well laid out, rollout and effort,” said Democratic strategist Eddie Vale. “He's going everywhere. Talking to everyone. Doing a lot of events and interviews that are getting him great press and I think you're now seeing that cumulative effect starting to carry over into his poll numbers.” 

The question among strategists remains if he the Indianan is surging at the right time. 

“The problem is that he's peaking about 6 months too early,” Setzer said. “The good news? Beto may have peaked about a year too early.”