WASHINGTON – Following last Tuesday night’s Democratic debate in Ohio, the consensus among pundits was that once again South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg emerged a winner. The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, for example, gushed that it was Buttigieg’s best debate yet. CNN’s Chris Cillizza wrote in including him among his four debate winners (in addition to Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar and Andrew Yang) that the purpose of debates is to draw contrasts and Buttigieg did that very well.

However, a CNN focus group of undecided Democratic Iowa caucus goers believe that Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar won the debate with Cory Booker not far behind. Only one of the focus group members said that former Vice President Joe Biden won the debate. All of them praised Bernie Sanders’ performance just two weeks after his heart attack.

No one in the focus group said that Pete Buttigieg won the debate. Is there a disconnect between the punditry and actual voter reaction to Mayor Pete’s debate performances? One explanation for the focus group reaction could be that those Iowa focus group voters do not reward candidates who attack other Democrats.  

Usually in a multi-candidate primary race, the two hurt by such attacks are the target of the attacks and the candidate delivering the attacks. Kamala Harris took after Biden in the first debate and after a brief rise in the polls now seems stuck in lower single digits with many observers pointing to her tough criticism of Biden as the beginning of her downfall. And, Julian Castro’s attacks on Biden in the second debate were roundly criticized.  

There is clearly a divide among Democrats in their opinion of Buttigieg’s performance. The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake put it this way: “Some thought he (Buttigieg) was amazing; others thought he was grating.” Blake is likely correct. Reading the comment sections following various articles and columns on the debate, readers tended to either lavish praise on Buttigieg such as “Mayor Pete dominated the debate” or blast him as “arrogant and gratuitously mean-spirited.”

Whatever one thinks of Mayor Pete’s debate performances, they haven’t helped him climb in the national polls. Buttigieg’s Real Clear Politics polling average sits at an anemic 5.6%. He hasn’t been able to expand his base beyond highly educated white Democrats. Pete has won pundit praise and been provided ample media coverage. Is there something in the way Pete communicates or about his message that rubs some ordinary Democrats the wrong way?

Even assuming Buttigieg’s message and approach to communicating it are on target, the South Bend mayor has another problem. He is attacking progressive Elizabeth Warren, but it is Joe Biden who currently stands in the way of him moving to the top. After first straddling both the moderate and progressive lanes, Buttigieg has settled on the moderate position. That means he needs to leapfrog moderate Biden in order to compete in the post-Iowa world with either Sanders or Warren, or both.

Historically, there have been three tickets out of Iowa. One is for the top establishment/moderate candidate, one for the top progressive or outsider candidate, and one for either a fresher version of either establishment or progressive candidates or an out-of-the-box candidate. Biden currently holds the establishment slot while Warren has emerged as the lead progressive candidate. Although slipping from second place to third behind Warren, Bernie Sanders continues to poll well, a second progressive candidate running strong in a year in which the party tilts left. No other candidates are above 5% in the Real Clear Politics national polling composite.

To be fair, Buttigieg is showing real signs of life in Iowa. A CBS News Iowa poll released on Oct. 13 has him running in fourth place at 14%. And, an Emerson poll released four days later, two days after the debate, shows him in third place with 16% closing in on Biden and Warren. Over the weekend, a Suffolk University/USA TODAY Poll declared it a “three-way race” with Biden at 18%, Warren at 17% and Buttigieg at 13%, prompting pollster David Paleologos of Sufflok to say, “Iowa is unquestionably up for grabs.” Buttigieg “has found a lane and is accelerating toward the front of the pack, surpassing Bernie Sanders. All of this is happening while the number of undecided voters continues to grow as Democratic caucusgoers pause to reevaluate the changing field.” The number of caucusgoers who say they are undecided has spiked 8 points since June to 29%. Among those who have a preferred candidate, nearly two-thirds (63%) say they might change their minds before the caucuses.

In addition, Mayor Pete’s Iowa organization is said to be nearly equal to Warren’s, considered the best. But even in Iowa organization only gets you so far. Buttigieg needs his message to fully catch on and for Biden to slip farther than he has to date. But he clearly is showing movement in Iowa if not nationally.

Buttigieg’s resources might allow him to finish below Biden, Warren, and Sanders in Iowa and still continue on until one of those three drops out. Biden’s FEC report posted a few hours after Tuesday’s debate shows him bleeding cash with only $8.9 million on hand compared to $33.5 million for Sanders, $25.7 million for Warren and $23.3 million for Buttigieg.

Biden is running an old-fashioned high-end campaign and it is putting his viability in jeopardy. The main reason presidential campaigns fold is lack of funds. At his current rate of raising and spending money, Biden could be broke by Iowa and Buttigieg would be the likely beneficiary.

In the meantime, Pete Buttigieg seems to be playing the role of the Paul Tsongas of the 2020 campaign – a liberal on social issues while bucking the party’s prevailing populist and progressive approaches to the economy and health care. 

“I’m a realist and I’ve got no problems saying no to some of the Democratic dogmas,” Tsongas said as he battled Bill Clinton for the nomination back in 1992.

Buttigieg could say the same today. 

Sautter is a Democratic consultant based in Washington.