Pete’s Precedents (Part One)

Pete Buttigieg likes reminding voters there was “another young guy with a funny name” who won Iowa and went on to take the nomination and presidency. Linking yourself to a still-popular recent president is smart. And with many voters already liking Mayor Pete, anything he can do to build plausibility gets him a step closer to the prize.

It’s working. The Real Clear Politics average has him up six points in Iowa and three in New Hampshire. Betting markets have him as the second most likely nominee. His national numbers are catching up. He’s safely in double digits now, much closer to second than fifth.

Maybe most importantly, all of his polls are up. Each survey to post in the past few weeks has him higher than that same pollster had him the last time they ran numbers. In places like Iowa and New Hampshire it gets him great data. In South Carolina, slightly less crappy. Everywhere else, somewhere in between.

He’s at 16% in a new survey from Illinois, trailing Joe Biden by a bit, in a pack with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. This is notable, because Illinois has a substantial African American population. It’s not South Carolina, but also not Iowa. There’s no evidence he can compete in primary states with a majority black Democratic electorate. But there’s more and more data showing he’s in the mix in places with at least some diversity.

Each of the front-runners have at least one fatal flaw. This is why Michael Bloomberg is spending piles of money. Pete is visibly flailing with African Americans, and is shaky with Latino voters. Bernie is poisonous among primary voters over 50, and a cyanide capsule for those over 65 or 70. Biden isn’t connecting *at all* with Millennials and Gen Z. Warren increasingly seems too liberal/progressive to at least half of the primary electorate.

You can make a strong case against any of the four. Each of the four have a mathematical path to the nomination. Biden is still the favorite by most objective measures, but if someone gave you the choice of him or the field, you’d likely bet the field. Bloomberg has an outside shot. So does Amy Klobuchar. I keep thinking Cory Booker should be able to compete, but the data continues to say otherwise. Maybe Kamala Harris resurrects herself.

But whether you ask the betting markets, Nate Silver, or just most observers, the odds of one of the top four getting the nomination are somewhere between 80 and 90 percent.

If it’s Biden, that means the most recent Veep got nominated. The previous three Democrats to fit that description are Al Gore, Walter Mondale, and Hubert Humphrey. You can argue this is a bad option, because all three lost in November, but each were successfully nominated in their first attempt after/during holding the office.

While Dick Cheney didn’t try, and Dan Quayle didn’t make a splash, plenty of Republicans, notably George H.W. Bush and Richard Nixon, made this path work. It’s not a leap. Those guys (Nixon on his second try) won general elections, so it’s not a road that has to dead end with the nomination.

It’s another way of saying that if Biden were even mostly capable of speaking coherently on demand, this contest would be mostly over. His age by itself isn’t a problem. Donald Trump was the oldest serious candidate in 2016. So was John McCain in 2008. Bob Dole in 1996. Lots of candidates in their seventies have received nominations in the past few decades, and frequently, the oldest or second oldest candidate gets picked.

When old candidates get nominated, they win frequently enough, so it’s not a general election obstacle in and of itself, never mind the current incumbent being seventy-plus himself. Personally, I think the voting public should worry about this more than it does. But in terms of a practical electability thing, no evidence of exclusion.

That brings us to the slightly older Bernie. Having removed the age issue as a roadblock, we can look at the rest of his resume. Heart attack? Whatever. Dwight Eisenhower had a major one in 1955, and easily won re-election in 1956. Bernie took a few minutes off, Ike was out of action for months.

Lyndon Johnson had an even worse, almost lethal heart attack almost a decade before winning the 1964 election in a landslide. Neither the 34th or 36th presidents had the advantage of stents or other modern procedures or meds to manage their cardiac situations.

Yes, Sanders is far left. And more extreme positions can be a general election impediment. But Democrats opted for George McGovern in 1972, Republicans for Barry Goldwater in 1964. Sure, they got clobbered. The incumbents they were running against were far more popular than Trump is. Ronald Reagan was both considered extreme by many and the oldest ever nominee when he ended Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Just like Sanders, Reagan finished a strong second to the establishment choice in the previous cycle. That’s the successful path Bernie is taking, that of the previous runner up. It’s more of a thing on the GOP side. Besides Reagan, Bush 41 (1988), Dole (1996), and McCain (2008) had finished second in the most recent fully contested nomination.

But not only a Republican thing. Al Smith followed this route in 1928, Hillary Clinton just did in 2016. It’s unusual to both have a former VP and a former second place finisher in the race at the same time. Bush 41 was both of those at the same time. Biden passing on running last round prevented this happening four years sooner. But between his resume and Bernie’s you have a very high percentage of historical nominees.

Warren is a little tougher to categorize, but not an outlier if she were to get nominated. She’s a sitting senator. From Massachusetts. Democrats did exactly that in 1960 (JFK) and 2004 (John Kerry.) Their most recent president was a sitting senator. McCain and Dole were senators when they got nominated.

We covered the ideological extreme part with Bernie. And his presence means she’s not the absolute most progressive serious candidate anyway. The last Democratic nominee was female. A woman got the most primary votes in 2008 (Hillary also.)

She’s been a national figure for upwards of a decade, a full decade if you start your count with her advocacy for the CFPB in the early Obama years, a bit less if you begin with her high profile 2012 Senate race against Scott Brown. Many supporters thought she should run for president in 2016.

Whatever your thoughts on the wisdom of nominating her, Warren fits the description of several previous choices. Her profile and resume are well within range. It’s also extremely common for a party only out of power for a single election to choose a less centrist candidate in their first attempt at getting the White House back.

Perhaps Trump changes the urgency, but sacrificing ideology for electability normally happens when primary voters have picked losing candidates for multiple elections in a row. Frequently at this stage, they think the problem was the last candidate was too squishy and failed to rally the base, not that moderates won’t let them get away with this.

If Buttigieg gets the nomination it’s a completely different matter. It would force us to redefine our ideas of who can win a major party’s nod. Donald Trump was an upset in 2016, but you’ll see as we dig deeper, nowhere near as unexpected as President, or even Nominee Pete would be. Should the Mayor win in November, the back-to-back combination would not only force a new look at what types of candidates win, but likely lead to a 2024 GOP field with 50+ candidates.

He’d be the first openly gay nominee. So we need to compare him to other firsts. The first Catholic, the first African American, the first woman. All three of those are taken care of among nominees, and the first two have won the presidency. And a woman has won the national popular vote.

Don’t want to spoil Part Two, but the next time a “first” gets the nomination on the first attempt, it’s the first. And the first Catholic (Al Smith) and first woman lost their general elections. So this by itself would make Buttigieg’s path difficult.

He’d be the youngest president and second youngest nominee. Yes, Barack Obama had a funny name, and yes, he looked youthful. But he wasn’t super young. He was 47. Bill Clinton got elected at 46. JFK at 43. He beat 47-year-old Nixon that year. Teddy Roosevelt left the White House after almost two full terms at 50. Ulysses S. Grant was 46. You get the idea.

Being under 40 is another matter. Buttigieg is not the first serious candidate at this age, and the futures of those who are presidential or even vice presidential contenders in their thirties are often strong. Trying now is a great indicator of someone who will get nominated later. But William Jennings Bryan at 36 in 1896 is the only sub-40 nominee.

Then there’s how unknown he was a few months ago. Jimmy Carter in 1976 is the only nominee who was both nationally anonymous, and had very few establishment ties at the time of campaign launch. Back in the smoke-filled room days, you could get nominated without a national profile, but the party bigwigs needed to be in your corner. Mayor Pete currently sits seventh in the FiveThirtyEight endorsement tracker.

Yes, Carter managed what he’s trying to do, but he was neither overly young, nor a “first.” Also, he’d served as Governor of Georgia, which brings us to Obstacle #4: Experience.

Until 2016, presidents needed to have served in Congress, and/or the Cabinet, and/or as a governor, and/or as vice president, and/or as a military general in a big war. Many checked a few of these boxes. Prior to Trump, Wendell Willkie in 1940 was the only nominee after 1804 to fill none of the qualifications.

You can say that if Trump was nominated and won with no political experience, so could a small city mayor. But he had none of the other three obstacles. Any one of the four would be a lot for Buttigieg to overcome, but the combination is unprecedented.

Just getting to his present polling with this arrayed against him is a big deal. And you can further argue he’s there because of the traditional limitations, not despite them. Democrats have nominated a “first” each of their last two opportunities to pick a fresh nominee.

His youth is a key contrast to the elderly front-runners. Being initially unknown is helpful at a time of media overload and suspicion of established politicians. And his status as a mayor, particularly with how he’s leaned in to it, did separate him from the gaggle of senators, representatives, and governors.

Getting noticed and getting nominated are two different things. As are getting nominated and winning in November. As the week continues, we’ll look at each of the four main hurdles and see what the past and Mayor Pete’s campaign performance is telling us about his prospects of getting over them.

I haven’t forgotten about his poll numbers with African Americans, but there are plenty of examples of candidates getting nominated by a divided party without the support of a large constituency. That’s sort of what happens when there’s division. And we can separately think of what the math means for November should he get picked without getting the black community fully engaged.

It’s not nothing, but given that no president had more than 1.3 to 1.5 demerits out of the 4.0 that Buttigieg does, and no nominee had more than two, let’s focus on those first. He’s no Obama. 44 was a comparatively conventional sale.

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