With great fanfare last month, Pete Buttigieg has announced “Phase Three” of his presidential campaign. Campaign adviser Lis Smith described the first two phases as teaching people how to pronounce his name and then raising gobs of money. For this new phase, the Buttigieg team plans to “blow them out of the water with our organization.” To that end, 20 new field offices in Iowa are opening this month, plus another 12 in New Hampshire.
Here’s a more accurate description. In Phase One, Buttigieg milked $32 million from 390,000 donors, most of whom knew next to nothing about his record, but were bowled over by a guy under 40 who can speak in complete paragraphs, sometimes in Norwegian. Phase Two was learning that Buttigieg has no strong and unique governing vision. We also learned his South Bend record on race relations as mayor, however well intentioned, is checkered. Phase Three, which so far has been a series of boasts about the campaign’s field operation, does nothing to solve the problems of Phase Two.
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But his campaign will keep going for months thanks to those swooning donors, who don’t reflect actual voters. You may have seen Democratic presidential candidates categorized as “wine track” and “beer track.” Political analyst Ron Brownstein popularized those labels, observing that the “brainy liberals with cool, detached personas and messages of political reform” on the wine track tend to lose in Democratic presidential primaries to candidates with support “rooted in the blue-collar and minority communities” on the beer track. But six months after Buttigieg wowed the Democratic donor class in a CNN town hall, and four months after he peaked at 8 percent in the RealClearPolitics poll average, Buttigieg can’t even crack the wine track. Instead, he seems to be pioneering a new campaign lane: the “craft beer” track.
With his national polling average down to a paltry 4.5 percent, Buttigieg’s support is narrow and idiosyncratic. He’s the IPA of Campaign 2020, a hipster nerd flavor.
Buttigieg is the latest candidate to teach political junkies and reporters that dollars aren’t votes. Through June, Buttigieg raised more money than any 2020 candidate save for Bernie Sanders, and he had the third-highest number of individual donors. Buttigieg, unlike Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, isn’t shunning large donor events, but 43 percent of his second-quarter haul came from donors who gave less than $200. Doesn’t that show broad-based support?
Well, no. Even though the Democratic donor community has been expanded with the rise of easy-click online giving, it remains a small, disproportionately white, disproportionately wealthy faction of the total Democratic electorate.
The progressive think tank Demos, in an analysis of 2012 presidential giving, found that only 15 percent of Democratic small donors were people of color. In 2016, the Democratic primary electorate was 38 percent people of color. Demos also found that 15 percent of Democratic small donors, and 25 percent of all Democratic donors, were millionaires (who are 3 percent of the U.S. population).
Past presidential candidates with lots of small donors have failed to win the most votes. Howard Dean was leading the 2004 Democratic presidential field in fundraising when John Kerry successfully kept his campaign afloat before the Iowa caucuses by mortgaging his house. In 2016, Sanders had approximately 2.4 million individual donors—twice as many as Hillary Clinton—yet Clinton won 15.6 million votes, nearly 4 million more than Sanders.
Of course, having millions of dollars in the bank gives a candidate the resources to expand support and surge at the right moment. And the Midwestern Buttigieg does poll slightly better in Iowa than he does nationally. He could still have a breakthrough.
But even if Buttigieg improbably won Iowa, he would probably then suffer the fate of previous wine-track candidates. In 1992, Paul Tsongas impressed wealthier, college-educated whites and pulled off an upset in New Hampshire. But he hit a brick wall in the Deep South. Bill Clinton won every Southern state that Rev. Jesse Jackson won four years earlier, contributing to Tsongas’ surrender just one month after his New Hampshire upset.
Like Tsongas before him, it’s hard to see how Buttigieg could ever build a diverse coalition to win the crucial African American South. In a July Monmouth poll, Buttigieg was at 1 percent with black voters in South Carolina.
Buttigieg may have been honorable when, during the first debate, he accepted fault for failing to diversify the South Bend police force. And he is trying to make inroads among black voters with his multifaceted, anti-racism “Douglass Plan.” But suddenly showing up with a set of grandiose proposals is not an effective shortcut for white politicians to earn black support, as Sanders learned the hard way in 2016.
Rep. Jim Clyburn, the influential South Carolina Democrat, has explained why it can be hard for whites to win over African Americans with big promises. “The black community, as a whole, has a very long history of being lied to,” he told South Carolina’s The State. “The reason there is distrust of politicians is because you promise them one thing, you double-cross them later.” In an interview with Rolling Stone’s Jamil Smith, Buttigieg appeared to grasp the size of his challenge, candidly concluding: “Good intentions are not enough. Just ’cause I seek to heal, and move beyond racism, and act accordingly, doesn’t mean, A) people are gonna trust me even — or especially — if I’m tellin’ the truth. And B) that we’re gonna get the results we’re after.” But he hasn’t shown he knows how to overcome that challenge.
For a nationally unknown mid-size city mayor to go as far as Buttigieg has in the Democratic presidential primary is a testament to his political skills. He doesn’t deserve criticism for making an audacious run even if he eventually falls short. But we should question the quick-to-click culture of his Democratic donors. A decent guy with lots of potential is far from the best qualified candidate to be president of the United States.
Candidates with better résumés—such as the forgotten governors Steve Bullock, John Hickenlooper and Jay Inslee—made their own mistakes and maybe are inherently limp performers. But they didn’t get the same opportunities as Buttigieg to prove themselves because the whims of a very small, disproportionately white, disproportionately wealthy faction of Democrats can determine who gets critical early attention.
The irony is that many of these donors were searching for a youthful outsider to prevent a Beltway septuagenarian from claiming the nomination. But Buttigieg’s 15 minutes of fame boxed out the previous young darling of the donor class: Beto O’Rourke, and froze out all the other promising candidates who hail from outside Washington. As the Buttigieg campaign pocketed tens of millions of dollars, the top tier has solidified around the field’s elders: Joe Biden, Sanders and Warren.
Maybe that would have happened anyway, and there’s certainly time for the race to shift. But the yawning gulf between Buttigieg’s dollar numbers and his poll numbers illuminates how Democratic donors, both small and large, do not intrinsically reflect the will of the broader Democratic electorate, and cannot dictate the ultimate outcome of the primary.
Chasing online donations may have been necessary to meet the Democratic National Committee’s new debate rules, and eye-popping dollar figures will also be a great way to get media coverage. But the Democratic primary is ultimately won with the votes of those who spend their dollars on six-packs, not on politicians.
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