Pete Buttigieg is hardly trying to be the first first. Al Smith became the first Catholic major party nominee in 1928. JFK broke that barrier for winning candidates in 1960. The African American barrier fell in 2008, a woman won the national popular vote in 2016. Donald Trump was a first too. A president who had never held elective office, nor served as a military general.
Mayor Pete wouldn’t be the first out of nowhere candidate to win a nomination under the current primary system either. “Jimmy Who” knocked down that wall in 1976. But he is trying to combine being the first openly gay nominee/president with having had zero national public footprint before running.
To add an extra degree of difficulty, Buttigieg currently has zero support among African American Democrats, so he’s trying to do all of this without the help of a key constituency. This is why Deval Patrick and those who will fund him are under the illusion his candidacy is useful.
It’s also why a candidate who led the most recent Iowa poll, and is tied for the lead there in the Real Clear Politics average, and has huge fundraising capabilities isn’t being treated like someone with a great chance at winning the nomination. Buttigieg is in strong contention in New Hampshire too. His underlying numbers there are excellent, and that’s before getting any momentum from an Iowa win.
From 1976 forward, winning Iowa and New Hampshire has guaranteed nomination, but it wouldn’t for Buttigieg. The narrative about him only winning because both states are extremely white is already established. And concerns about the Mayor’s ability to win in more diverse circumstances could harm his chances of winning those first two states.
Back in 1960, JFK faced similar concerns. Would Protestant Americans vote for him? Al Smith got clobbered back in 1928. A few supposedly safe southern states went Republican for the first time since Reconstruction ended. Kennedy chose West Virginia as his test case, challenging Hubert Humphrey in a state with few Catholics.
His victory didn’t clinch the presidency, but it was a huge step towards the nomination. And it was ideal because Humphrey was beatable there. Buttigieg needs to find somewhere where winning would matter, but also where it’s possible. A South Carolina win would clinch the nomination, but it’s also a very big reach. Most nominees have a few states that don’t set up well, this is one of Pete’s.
Winning Nevada is technically possible, and it would give him three straight wins to begin the voting season (I don’t see a situation where he loses New Hampshire but wins Nevada.) But again, this isn’t his line in the sand, place to put up or shut up state. Let’s take a look at all of the Super Tuesday options:
No Way: Alabama, Arkansas
Both states have fewer upscale, educated, moderate white voters than South Carolina does. If Buttigieg wins these, not only is it a sign of the apocalypse, but he’s also your nominee.
Very Unlikely: Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma
Tennessee sets up similarly to South Carolina. Texas is technically possible, but not a good risk considering the resources required. Buttigieg has a good amount of money, but he’s not free to drop $30 million there. It doesn’t appear he’s on good terms with Beto O’Rourke or Julian Castro. While Mayor Pete polls better with Hispanic voters than African Americans, it’s not a strength.
The Democratic electorate there is both less white and less educated than the country as a whole, so I’m going to call this a skip. Too much to deal with.
Oklahoma doesn’t have enough African American voters for Buttigieg to get credit, and doesn’t have enough educated voters for him to have a great chance of winning. Sanders won in 2016, and could very possibly do so again. I’d believe a whole range of outcomes here. It’s not a great place for Pete to focus on.
Would Injure Others: Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts
He’s not going to win Vermont. Winning Massachusetts would end Elizabeth Warren without making things secure for Buttigieg. Maine would be a fun victory, but not silence the concerns.
Needs to Win: Utah, Minnesota, Colorado
I haven’t seen any recent polling, but it’s hard to picture a scenario where Buttigieg wins the nomination without winning Utah. In previous years, this was a caucus, which would have favored Bernie Sanders. Now it’s a primary. He needs this one, but it’s not going to allay fears.
Minnesota is Amy Klobuchar’s state. Buttigieg won’t win this if Klobuchar is still in the race on March 3. Buttigieg also won’t win the nomination if Klobuchar is still in the race on March 3. He’s not winning Iowa and New Hampshire and then losing here.
Colorado is the hardest of the three, but again one that Nominee Pete is winning. It’s a white and Hispanic state, with a good amount of the upscale voters who gravitate to him. These three victories would keep Buttigieg in the game after Super Tuesday, but wouldn’t put him in a commanding position.
Should Win: Virginia
If Mike Bloomberg is more relevant that I’m expecting as of today, this gets much harder. But if Bloomberg is relevant, there’s not enough room for Buttigieg to win the nomination. So we’re going to assume he either decides not to run, or that few care that he did.
Northern Virginia is Buttigieg Country. Perhaps more than anywhere in the U.S. It will give him a good shot. Were he to win some African American votes in Norfolk or Richmond, it would solve his problem, in addition to posting another win. But we need to assume Biden is still viable, and mathematically and financially, Buttigieg is better off trying to run up the score in the D.C. suburbs.
Wild Card: North Carolina
It’s halfway between Virginia and South Carolina. And not just physically. Winning here likely would shut everyone up. But again, you can’t be everywhere at once, and he’s better off focusing on getting a win in Virginia, even if it wouldn’t make as much of a statement.
Getting several victories on Super Tuesday is almost as important as where they are. Marco Rubio fell a few points short in several places in 2016 and the narrative killed whatever was left of his candidacy. He put himself in position to win a bunch of states but actually got very few. This is an important lesson for Mayor Pete to remember.
The Target: California
Winning the biggest, most diverse state in the country would count. Buttigieg is polling relatively well with Asian voters, and that matters here. He’s capable of doing well enough with Hispanics to make the math work. There are plenty of upscale tech workers.
It’s the perfect opportunity. Nobody confuses California with Iowa or New Hampshire, but he doesn’t have to suddenly become the favorite choice of black voters to win. It’s not a great Biden state. Kamala Harris is likely out of the race by Election Day, and weak enough previously to keep from grabbing too many early votes (half of Californian voters will have done so before March 3.)
It requires money. He’ll have plenty. And it lets him do something even Obama wasn’t able to accomplish in 2008. The trick is taking advantage of expectations underrating his odds. It’s like what Obama was able to do in Iowa. He got points for winning in a heavily white state, but observers underrated the importance of his ground game and geographic proximity.
Buttigieg has a lot of work to do over the next few months. As early as next week’s debate, he’ll be on the firing line. Several opponents will go right at him. It’s a great chance to show he’s a legit contender if he can stand up to the attacks.
Now that he’s polling this well in Iowa, he has to win it. No points for making it close. He’s gotta get New Hampshire too. Combining those with what you see above would put him on a path to the nomination. As of today, he’s at 19% odds on PredictIt and only 19 endorsement points on FiveThirtyEight. As a point of comparison, Klobuchar has 47 points, Castro 13.
Buttigieg has received three tracked endorsements since April. Three. This number is going to stay pretty low unless, or until he wins California. Then and only then is he the type of front-running first as JFK and Obama were.