SOUTH BEND  — We’ve got an Iowa surprise. And it’s nothing to do with a forecast on when corn will be knee-high. Too early to measure the corn crop. A lot to do, though, with measuring the crop of presidential candidates.
The Iowa survey released last week by Emerson College, showing South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg in third place among likely Democratic caucus goers, was a big surprise.
It’s another indication that Buttigieg has become a candidate to be taken seriously on the national political stage,  even before he is officially a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Q: What’s next?
A: Buttigieg plans on campaigning in New Hampshire this weekend.
Q: So, he’s already looking beyond that first-in-the-nation test in the Iowa caucuses next year?
A: Sure. A good Iowa showing loses significance if he falls flat in the New Hampshire primary and other early tests. Buttigieg also is lining up coordinators and staff in Nevada and South Carolina.
Q: But he’s not really a candidate?
A: Of course he is. He really is. He just hasn’t officially announced yet. Neither have some others, including Joe Biden. It’s all about planning for maximum value in announcement timing. Buttigieg formed what is called an exploratory committee for organizing and fundraising purposes. If he had failed to reach funding and polling levels to qualify for the first debate in June, Buttigieg could have decided not to run. But he has far surpassed those requirements.
Q:  What’s so great about third place in a poll?
A: If Biden or Bernie Sanders came in third it would be a bad showing. But Biden, with 25%, was first, followed by Sanders at 24%. The presumed frontrunners came in where expected. Buttigieg, with 0% in Emerson’s January survey, shot past other better-known contenders to finish third, with 11%. That far exceeds expectations for him.
Q: Does his New Hampshire travel mean he thinks he’s all set in Iowa?
A: Not at all. It’s still very early. He will campaign extensively in Iowa. But New Hampshire is important too, even if Sanders is regarded as a likely winner there. New Hampshire could test the support of millennials. Will they mostly stick with Sanders, 77, or shift significantly to the first viable millennial candidate in Buttigieg, 37? 
Q: How did Buttigieg go from so little known to showing up in a bunch of polls and topping his fundraising goals?
A: Buttigieg has planned his nationwide media tour well. Two events that brought him attention from Democrats nationwide were a CNN Town Hall and a lengthy appearance on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC. Mike Schmuhl, Buttigieg’s campaign manager (well, committee manager, since there is no official campaign yet) confirmed that donations and interest in the candidate shot up noticeably after those appearances. 
Q: Was Buttigieg impressive in ripping President Trump?
A: No. He avoided taking repeated shots at the president or calling for impeachment. Instead he concentrated on issues such as health care, jobs and individual freedoms. He actually answered the questions directly, rather than constantly repeating talking points as so many candidates do. He was just like the Mayor Pete I’ve seen answering questions from students in my Notre Dame journalism class. His style impressed viewers. At least for now.
Q: Any other reason for his surprisingly fast start?
A: Yes, it involves comparison with a slow or even stumbling start for some of those better-known contenders. For example, a story in the New York Times last week featured a four-column photo of Buttigieg with an enthusiastic crowd in Manhattan. The headline: “City Gushes Over Mayor Mulling a 2020 Bid: Not Its Own de Blasio, But Mayor Buttigieg Of South Bend, Ind.” Mayor Bill de Blasio does have a few more constituents in his city of 8.6 million population. 
Colwell has covered Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.