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DES MOINES, Iowa – Pete Buttigieg has rocketed to the top of the latest Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll in the latest reshuffling of the top tier of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.
Since September, Buttigieg has risen 16 percentage points among Iowa’s likely Democratic caucusgoers, with 25% now saying he is their first choice for president. For the first time in the Register’s Iowa Poll, he bests rivals Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who are now clustered in competition for second place and about 10 percentage points behind the South Bend, Indiana, mayor.
Warren, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, led the September Iowa Poll, when 22% said she was their first choice. In this poll, her support slips to 16%. Former Vice President Biden, who led the Register’s first three Iowa Polls of the 2020 caucus cycle, has continued to slide, falling 5 percentage points to 15%. Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, also garners 15% — a 4 percentage point rise.
Those four candidates began to pull away from the crowded field of Democrats and separate into a top tier of contenders in June’s Iowa Poll. Biden, Warren and now Buttigieg have all taken turns atop the poll, with Sanders consistently in the top four.
This latest poll underscores that separation. The group’s next-closest competitor, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, trails well behind, at 6%.
“This is the first poll that shows Buttigieg as a stand-alone front-runner,” said J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co., which conducted the poll. “There have been four candidates that have sort of jostled around in a pack together, but he has a sizable lead over the nearest contender — 9 points. So this is a new status for him.”
At 3% are U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, billionaire businessman Tom Steyer and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
Former New York City mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who moved toward a late entry into the presidential primaries last week, is at 2%.
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado follows at 1%. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, former housing secretary Julián Castro and former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania round to 0%.
Former U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland and author Marianne Williamson were not named as a first choice by any poll respondents.
More respondents — 30% now, compared with 20% in September — say they have a first choice and their minds are made up. That still leaves ample opportunity for more surges and slides in the two-and-a-half months before the caucuses: 62% say they have a first choice but could still be persuaded, 1% are unsure and 7% have not made a first choice. In September, 16% of caucusgoers said they had not made a first choice.
The poll of 500 likely Democratic caucusgoers was conducted Nov. 8-13 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
High commitment points to ‘a different kind of caucus’
Iowa’s likely Democratic caucusgoers indicate growing enthusiasm.
According to the poll, 63% say they will definitely, rather than probably, caucus, an uptick of 3 percentage points since September.
Typically, Selzer said, commitment and enthusiasm reach their highest point just before the caucuses. But the percentage of those now saying they will definitely attend the Feb. 3, 2020, caucuses already eclipses the 53% who said they would do so just before the 2008 caucuses.
“This is one of the signals that this is going to be, potentially, a different kind of caucus,” Selzer said.
But even as their enthusiasm is high, likely Democratic caucusgoers remain skeptical about the current candidates’ chances of beating Republican President Donald Trump.
A majority – 63% – say it’s more important to nominate a candidate with a strong chance to beat the president than to nominate a Democrat who shares their positions on major issues. Thirty-two percent say the opposite.
But poll respondents are far from certain that any of the four leading candidates will win in a general election against Trump.
Of the four candidates tested, Sanders shows the most weakness, with 31% saying they are “almost certain” he will lose. It’s 24% for Warren, 21% for Biden and 19% for Buttigieg.
Biden fares best, with 25% saying they are “almost certain he will beat” Trump. It is 17% for Sanders, 16% for Buttigieg and 15% for Warren. Among all poll respondents, 52% say they are fairly confident or almost certain Biden will beat Trump. Biden is the only one of the four top candidates to reach a majority.
For Buttigieg, the poll’s front-runner, just 27% of his own supporters say they are “almost certain” he will beat Trump. Selzer said that may be the worst number for Buttigieg in this poll.
“That’s 30 points behind Biden, yet Buttigieg leads in this poll,” Selzer said.
“If the most important thing is to win, his supporters don’t have that confidence that he’s the one to do it,” she said. “So as this goes forward, he has more convincing to do or someone else will rise up.”
Selzer said two of the race’s latest entrants – Bloomberg and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick – may view this skepticism about the current field as inviting their entry into the race.
“That, to me, is what others might be seeing in their own polling that says, ‘This campaign is suffering from a lack of confidence, and they need a new candidate that can relieve them of their doubt,’ ” Selzer said.
Democrats seem to favor moderation
In September, Warren led the field by a modest 2-point margin over Biden. It represented months of slow, steady climbing in the polls. But her rise coincided with sharper attacks from her competitors, particularly over her plan for how to pay for “Medicare for All.”
Her slide into a statistical tie for second place with Biden and Sanders coincides with Buttigieg’s rise. It’s the first time she’s slipped in the Iowa Poll.
Forty-eight percent of poll respondents describe her political views as “about right” – down slightly from 54% in March. The share of those who describe her as “too liberal” has risen from 23% in March to 38% today.
That’s better than Sanders, though, who is described as “too liberal” by 53% of likely Democratic caucusgoers and “about right” by 37%.
“I just think they are way, way out in left field, as far as being too liberal,” Dolores Roberts, an 88-year-old poll respondent who lives on an acreage north of Floyd, said of Warren and Sanders. “I don’t think the majority of maybe even the Democrats are going to go along with all of their ideas for free stuff.”
Roberts has Biden as her first choice and Buttigieg as her second.
Biden does better than both Warren and Sanders, with 55% saying his views are “about right.” However, that’s down substantially from the 70% who said so in March. Today, more say he’s “too conservative” (28%) than did in March (14%).
Buttigieg fares best of the four candidates, with 63% saying he’s “about right,” 13% calling him “too conservative” and 7% saying he’s “too liberal.”
Biden and Buttigieg may also be benefiting from the 52% of likely Democratic caucusgoers who say they would rather see their nominee advocate for proposals that have a good chance of becoming law even if they do not represent big change. That’s more than the 36% who prefer a candidate who backs big ideas, even if there is a lower chance they would become law.
As might be expected, majorities of likely caucusgoers who support Warren (58%) and Sanders (54%) want big ideas. Majorities who support Buttigieg (62%) and Biden (60%) want changes that can become law.
“There is kind of an overall sense in this poll, across things, that a more moderate candidate is preferred,” Selzer said. “So that says to me that, again, if Biden is continuing to decline, it gives an opening for Buttigieg to rise.”
Andrew Couch, a 22-year-old business analytics student at Iowa City’s University of Iowa, said he likes Buttigieg, particularly his “Medicare for All Who Want It” approach to health care. He said he appreciates someone who can be relatively moderate but still call out flaws in the health care system.
“I’m not really that big a fan of Medicare for All, just because I don’t think it’s really a realistic thing that can be passed in Congress,” he said. “And also I think people should have an option for their health insurance, instead of being forced to join a government-ran health insurance company.”
What’s driving Buttigieg’s rise
Buttigieg has been among those more directly criticizing Warren’s health care plan recently, and he’s dug in to present himself as the younger, fresher alternative to Biden. His supporters came out in force to the Iowa Democratic Party’s Liberty and Justice dinner Nov. 1, and he’s enjoyed a steady flow of positive news stories highlighting his surge in other rounds of polling.
Selzer said Buttigieg’s support is “distinctively broad” across demographic groups.
When looking at the entire footprint of his support in Iowa, he now leads the field, with 68% saying they are actively considering him in some capacity. That includes the 25% who say he is their first choice, the 14% who name him as their second choice and the 29% who say they are actively considering him.
That lead further “cements Buttigieg’s front-runner status” in this poll, Selzer said.
On that footprint score, Buttigieg leads Warren (now at 66%, down from 71% in September), Biden (58%), Sanders (54%), Harris (46%), Klobuchar (39%), Booker (36%), Yang (33%), Steyer (26%), Castro (18%), Gabbard (17%), Bloomberg (14%), Bennet (11%), Bullock (8%), Delaney (7%), Williams (7%) and Sestak (3%).
Second choices are particularly important in the Iowa caucuses, where candidates must earn the support of at least 15% of those attending a precinct’s caucus to be considered viable. Supporters of candidates not considered viable have the chance to move to their second-choice candidate.
Warren is the second choice of 20% of likely caucusgoers, revealing an underlying strength for her, Selzer said. Buttigieg is the second choice of 14%, with Sanders and Biden at 13%. Harris has typically done well as a second choice, but at 7%, she is now only 1 point ahead of Klobuchar.
“Harris was always on the cusp of being a front-runner,” Selzer said. “But her first-choice vote has been cut in half. Her second-choice vote is half what it was at its high point. So there’s a clear signal that people are moving away.”
If the poll respondents who name candidates with less than 15% support as their first choice are reallocated to their second choice, however, it does not create any newly viable candidates or meaningfully reorder the top four candidates.
If a front-runner were to stumble, where might their support go? For Warren and Sanders, both popular among those who describe themselves as “very liberal,” more of their supporters name the other as their second choice than pick any other candidate. Forty-five percent of Sanders’ supporters select Warren as a second choice, and 39% of Warren’s supporters choose Sanders as the next-best option.
Although Biden and Buttigieg are seen as competing in the same moderate lane, a plurality of Buttigieg’s supporters (28%) back Warren as their second choice, whereas 25% of Biden’s supporters name Buttigieg as their second option.
Sanders, though, benefits from an extremely enthusiastic and committed core of supporters. Fifty-one percent of his supporters describe themselves as “extremely enthusiastic.” That’s far ahead of Warren (35%), Buttigieg (33%) and Biden (25%).
“The part that is impressive is the enthusiasm that his supporters have. He might not be growing his base, but they’re stuck with him – in the good way,” Selzer said. “It feels like they will not budge.”
Selzer said Buttigieg’s rise from 1% in the March Iowa Poll to the top of it today reflects the ultimate selling point of Iowa’s caucus system.
“It proves up what I say about the beauty of having a place like Iowa go first, which is anyone can start anywhere and potentially win,” she said. “They have a chance.”
Contributing: Katie Akin and Stephen Gruber-Miller. Follow Brianne Pfannenstiel on Twitter at @brianneDMR