The Memo: Centrists change tone of Democratic race

Is the center-left striking back in the Democratic presidential primary?

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegBooker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Buttigieg rolls out endorsements from South Bend officials Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute MORE is on the rise in Iowa. Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval PatrickDeval PatrickSanders urges impeachment trial 'quickly' in the Senate Booker campaign rakes in million after Harris exits 2020 race Krystal Ball: New Biden ad is everything that's wrong with Democrats MORE has joined the race, and billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael Rubens BloombergBooker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Bloomberg unveils plan to combat climate change, cut emissions by 50 percent in 10 years Krystal Ball rips Warren's 'passive-aggressive' swipes at rivals MORE is on the cusp of doing so. Even former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaModerate or left of center — which is better for Democrats in 2020? Obama: Countries facing severe effects of climate change offer 'moral call to rest of the world' Democrats' self-inflicted diversity vulnerability MORE has warned the party not to overestimate the American public's appetite for sweeping change.

Those developments, all coming in quick succession, have changed the mood music around a primary that had previously been dominated by the rise of progressive Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTrump executive order aimed at combating anti-Semitism stirs up controversy Booker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute MORE (D-Mass.) and questions about whether the more centrist policies of former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenNew York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Graham invites Giuliani to testify about recent Ukraine trip Booker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications MORE were out of step with the party’s activist base.

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“This is still a country that is less revolutionary than it is interested in improvement,” Obama said at an appearance in Washington on Friday. “The average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.”

Obama’s intervention was nuanced — he sympathized with people arguing that his own reforms had not gone far enough and that more needed to be done — but overall it was more supportive of incrementalism than the radicalism advocated by progressives such as Warren and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders 'outraged' after MLB threatens to cut ties with minor league teams Booker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute MORE (I-Vt.).

Underlining the state of flux within the primary, Warren has now made clear that she would not seek to enact "Medicare for All" immediately after taking office. If elected, she would intend to pass it by the end of her third year in the White House, she stated on Friday.

To many observers, that clarification seemed like a concession to those who have argued that Warren is positioning herself in too radical a spot for the general electorate — a serious vulnerability given how desperate Democrats are to beat President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Trump rips Michigan Rep. Dingell after Fox News appearance: 'Really pathetic!' MORE next November.

“I think it is a way to assuage people who are concerned that she would lose voters based on that fact that there are people who would prefer to keep their health insurance,” said Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky. “But it gives Bernie Sanders an opening with some of her supporters.”

Both Warren and Sanders are sure to be concerned by the rise of Buttigeg in Iowa, where liberal activists normally dominate the caucuses. In the two most recent competitive caucuses, Sanders ran eventual nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonNo, the polls aren't wrong — but you have to know what to look for How to shut down fake Republican outrage over 'spying' on Trump More than 200,000 Wisconsin voters will be removed from the rolls MORE very close in 2016 and Obama, then a senator, defeated Clinton, who placed third, in 2008.

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A Des Moines Register-CNN survey released Saturday evening showed 25 percent of likely caucusgoers naming Buttigieg as their first choice for president. Bunched some distance behind him were Warren at 16 percent and Sanders and Biden at 15 percent each.

Just as tellingly, the poll revealed a greater level of comfort among likely caucusgoers with Buttigieg and Biden than with Warren or Sanders.

Sixty-three percent called Buttigieg’s political views “about right,” and 55 percent said the same about Biden. The figures were lower for Warren and Sanders: 48 percent and 37 percent, respectively. 

More than half the likely caucusgoers — 53 percent — thought Sanders’s views were “too liberal,” while 38 percent said the same of Warren.

Buttigieg now also leads the RealClearPolitics polling average in the state.

Still, Democratic strategists who spoke to The Hill were skeptical that too much should be read into one or two recent polls, cautioning that the field remains very fluid. Some also noted that Buttigieg has been advertising heavily in Iowa. 

Skeptics also note that, while Buttigieg has risen somewhat in polling in New Hampshire, he remains some distance behind the front-runners in the Granite State — a factor that seems to argue against the idea that there is a pro-centrist tide sweeping the party nationwide.

“There this idea that he’s shot into a huge lead in Iowa. He’s at 25 [percent]! Are you kidding me?” said one Democratic strategist who asked for anonymity to speak candidly.

This strategist also said, “I think the Democratic Party remains a progressive party. The party has moved to the left. But if you are going to be out on the left, you have to be able to defend your ideas.” 

Among progressives, the media attention on Buttigieg — and the amount of coverage given to Bloomberg and Patrick — seems excessive.

Jonathan Tasini, a Sanders supporter and Democratic strategist, said he was “very unmoved” by the idea of polls in Iowa — an exceptionally white state — being seen as representative of where Democrats stand across the nation.

And in the Hawkeye State, “if you look back so many cycles of the presidential election, there is almost always someone who has a burst of energy and rises in the polls. It is not clear that sustains someone on the day of the caucuses,” he said.

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Still, Tasini also said it was important not to underestimate the forces ranged against the candidates on the left.

“There is no question that the centrist establishment — meaning donors, operatives and elected officials — do not want a progressive to lead the party, partly because that threatens their class status and their position of power,” he said.

Roginsky, like others, argued that it was too early for any sweeping conclusions. 

Democratic voters, she said, were shopping around for a person who would meet the one standard that matters above all: an ability to beat Trump.

There was no real ideologically driven desire for a centrist, she added.

“It’s not so much based on ideology as it is based on electability,” she said.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.