Breaking Down Pete Buttigieg’s Polling Gains

Earlier this week, I started something new on my Twitter account, the #MayorPetePollTracker.

The goal was to provide updates on South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, the current rising star of the 2020 Democratic primaries. But actually lining up his recent survey performances reinforced one of my prior suspicions — Buttigieg is polling really well, especially at the state level.

To understand how, let’s divide polls featuring Buttigieg into two categories, national polls and state polls.

Here are the national polls:


Nationally, Buttigieg has seen a considerable rise: no longer is he in the vast bottom tier of candidates like Tulsi Gabbard and Jay Inslee, who at best finish with one percent; instead, he’s starting to surpass big-name senators like Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker.

Aggregating state polls paints an even more favorable picture for Buttigieg:


Though I initially considered the late-March Emerson College poll of Iowa an outlier —literally calling it “wild” — it seems to have started something of a trend, as Buttigieg is now polling above ten percent in many early states. Given the front-loaded nature of the 2020 primary calendar, in which nearly two-thirds of delegates will be awarded in the first seven weeks, this could portend well for the mayor of South Bend (and others who succeed from the get-go).

Of course, for a cloud to have a silver lining, it has to rain. In other words, there are a couple of pcaveats. First and foremost, polling suggests Buttigieg’s base of support might not be enough to get him to the top.

Alongside asking about one’s preferred candidate, some pollsters also ask respondents who their second choice would be. In yesterday’s Monmouth survey, only 6% of likely Iowa caucusgoers said they’d consider Buttigieg the next-best option. The Morning Consult’s national poll shows a similar story.

This leads me to believe that, at least right now, Buttigieg is in an awkward position: rather than stealing voters from other candidates, most of his growing support probably comes from undecideds or people who had previously not tuned in. Therefore, if the field begins to winnow, his chances of capitalizing are slimmer than those of Kamala Harris or Joe Biden. Such inelasticity is similar to what happened with Bernie Sanders in 2016, meaning Buttigieg may possibly have a lower “ceiling” than some of his competitors.

The second source of skepticism lies in methodological error. You probably noticed that most of the state-level polls are from Emerson College, so if they have a systematic bias, the entire result could be skewed.

Rather than using human telephone interviewers, Emerson conducts so-called robo-polls; much like the support hotline for a major bank, an automated robotic voice asks questions, and answers are recorded by dial tones. In a field with nearly 20 candidates,  it’s understandable that people wouldn’t wait to hear all the names — maybe they’d get impatient and stop after just a few. Thus, if candidates were listed alphabetically by last name (like how Emerson likely did), Pete Buttigieg benefits from being near the top. While there’s no way to know how substantially this may have inflated his polling numbers, the scenario shouldn’t be ruled out.

To be clear, I’m not trying to discount any polling gains Pete Buttigieg has seen; he’s certainly in the middle of a moment, one that could carry him into the primaries. Still, though, when assessing big political shifts like this, we should consider a range of possibilities and not lose sight of which are the most realistic.

Buttigieg is performing better than ever before, but he has a long way to go before he can be considered top-tier.

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