It's the aggressive progressives vs. the pragmatic moderates

It's the aggressive progressives vs. the pragmatic moderates
© Getty Images

Is Mayor Pete the candidate to beat in the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination? It’s too early to tell, because the race is still in flux. But South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegBiden's proposals spark phase 2 of supply chain crisis Biden returns restores tradition, returning to Kennedy Center Honors The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Congress avoids shutdown MORE has risen to the top of the polls in the first two states, Iowa and New Hampshire, that elect delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee.

Buttigieg is one of three Democratic candidates who entered the presidential race with little national name recognition but made a strong first impression. The other two are Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHarris talks maternal health with Olympian Allyson Felix CDFIs have proven they're the right tool to help small business, let's give them what they need to do the job The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Omicron tests vaccines; Bob Dole dies at 98 MORE (D-Calif.) and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas). O’Rourke dropped out after a sizzling start. Harris made a big splash in the first Democratic debate with a blistering attack on the then-Democratic frontrunner, Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse passes 8B defense policy bill House approves bill to ease passage of debt limit hike Senate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale MORE, but her campaign has sputtered since then.

How did Buttigieg become a big player in the Democratic race while O’Rourke failed and Harris continues to struggle?

ADVERTISEMENT

First, Mayor Pete got great early reviews from the great mentioners in the “invisible primary” that unfolds in the Acela corridor well before the candidates meet real live Democratic primary voters.

The Washington Post once called him “the most interesting mayor you never heard of.” Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden Supreme Court study panel unanimously approves final report To advance democracy, defend Taiwan and Ukraine Press: GOP freak show: Who's in charge? MORE once included Buttigieg among four Democrats who represented the future of the Democratic Party.

Typical of the buzz was a tweet from Joe ScarboroughCharles (Joe) Joseph ScarboroughScarborough pleads with Biden to mandate vaccines for teachers, health workers Trump ramps up attacks on media Scarborough hosts critical race theory debate on 'Morning Joe' MORE reacting to Buttigieg’s appearance on Morning Joe. “Mika and I have been overwhelmed by the reaction @PeteButtigieg got after being on the show. The only other time in 12 years that we heard from as many people about a guest was after @BarackObama appeared on Morning Joe.” 

Buttigieg also has a great story to tell.

He’s the un-Trump. He’s young and smart, and he served with distinction in a war zone.

Buttigieg received degrees from Harvard and from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He served in Naval Intelligence for seven months in Afghanistan, and he received a Joint Services Commendation Medal for his counter-terrorism duty in a combat zone. He was elected to the first of his two terms as mayor of South Bend when he was only 29. He still holds his rank as a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve.

And by the way, he’s gay and married. He is the first openly gay candidate to run for the Democratic presidential nomination, and he would become the first openly gay president of the United States.

Plus, he’s the kind of outsider who thrives in an environment where Americans still distrust and even hate Washington D.C.

The three candidates leading the national polls – former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSenate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale Overnight Defense & National Security — Lawmakers clinch deal on defense bill White House 'strongly opposes' Senate resolution to stop Saudi arms sale MORE (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenHillicon Valley — Presented by Connected Commerce Council — Incident reporting language left out of package Exporting gas means higher monthly energy bills for American families Senators turn up the heat on Amazon, data brokers during hearing MORE (D-Mass.) have all served as United States senators and are all in their 70s.

Mayor Pete is only 37; Biden had already served in Congress for nine years by the time the mayor was born in 1982. Together Biden and Sanders have done 64 years of hard time in Washington. Buttigieg served in Afghanistan but is unbloodied by gladiatorial combat in “The Swamp.”

For some Democrats, the decades of congressional know-how that Biden and Sanders have is a welcome antidote to Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSenate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale Crenshaw slams House Freedom Caucus members as 'grifters,' 'performance artists' Senate confirms Biden's nominee to lead Customs and Border Protection MORE’s lack of political experience. But to many Americans, long service in Washington is still the kiss of death.

In the most recent Democratic debate. Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharSenators turn up the heat on Amazon, data brokers during hearing GOP Sen. Braun says abortion laws should be left up to states Klobuchar says 'best way' to protect abortion rights is to codify Roe v. Wade into law MORE (D-Minn.) attacked Buttigieg for lacking the national experience to be an effective president. His comeback was “Washington experience is not the only experience that matters. There’s more than 100 years of experience on this stage, and where are we now as a country?”

Well played, Mayor Pete.

The Real Clear Poll averages have Buttigieg in first place in Iowa and New Hampshire, but still stuck in single digits nationally. Can Mayor Pete repeat his success and project that support onto a national playing field?

To become a big player nationally, Buttigieg must demonstrate that he can secure the support of Latino and African American Democrats. Mayor Pete is doing well in New Hampshire and Iowa, where there are relatively few black and brown voters. But he has very little support in the next two contests in Nevada and South Carolina, where there are large numbers of Latino and African American voters. The next wave of states, on Super Tuesday, boast large populations of non-white Democrats.

Buttigieg's opponents have tried to portray him as #MayoPete, the white bread candidate. If the label sticks, Buttigieg will have problems as he spreads his wings nationally. Anywhere from 35 percent to 40 percent of Democratic primary voters or caucus participants nationally will be black or brown.

Nationally, Buttigieg’s future is also dependent on the state of Biden’s campaign and the impact former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael BloombergBiden cannot allow his domestic fumbles to transfer to the world stage Jovanni Ortiz in talks for potential Harris job The economic challenges facing Jerome Powell and Joe Biden MORE and his money have on the campaign.

When all is said and done, the race will boil down to two candidates.

ADVERTISEMENT

One of the finalists, either Warren or Sanders, will emerge as the champion of the aggressive progressives.

The other finalist will represent the pragmatic moderates in the party. Biden and Buttigieg are battling to be the pragmatists’ standard bearer. In the recent Democratic debate, Buttigieg went out of his way to court independents and even Republicans.

Biden’s support has diminished since he formally entered the race. If Biden’s candidacy stabilizes, Mayor Pete will hit a roadblock. If the former vice president’s fortunes continue to decline, Buttigieg will inherit some of his support.

Bloomberg is a late entry. The billionaire businessman has just started a two-week $37-billion national media buy that will make or break him in his quest to be the great moderate hope in the sweepstakes to stop Trump.

There have been five nationally televised Democratic debates, and there’s less than three months before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. But surprisingly few Democrats have made a hard and fast decision about a nominee.

Will Buttigieg break out and gain support beyond Iowa and New Hampshire? Will Bloomberg’s big bucks shuffle the deck? There’s still time for lots of twists and turns in the campaign until the people's choice finally emerges.

Brad Bannon is a Democratic pollster and CEO of Bannon Communications Research. He is also the host of the radio podcast “Deadline D.C. With Brad Bannon,” which airs on the Progressive Voices Network. Follow him on Twitter @BradBannon.