News junkies are more than familiar with South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. After all, the articles on him (such as this one) from the national media seem to keep at a brisk pace. He’s now a clear number 2 in cable news mentions. But why?
Part of it has to do with Buttigieg’s differentiating biography and rise in the polls. Indeed, well-informed voters like him, and his Google searches picked up before the media caught up.
I would caution, though, that Buttigieg’s core support may position him to seem more popular to national media than he actually is.
The problem for reporters is that even the best one’s opinions about the horserace are shaped by the environment surrounding them. This is especially the case early in primaries, because polling is far less predictive than it is in general elections. The people who surround national media reporters are right in Buttigieg’s wheelhouse.
Buttigieg does best among wealthier Democrats. Take a look at recent polling from California (Quinnipiac University), Iowa (Monmouth University) and nationally (Quinnipiac). In all three cases, Buttigieg’s support more than doubles as one goes from voters making less than $50,000 to greater than $100,000. The jump is rather dramatic in the Iowa poll, which had Buttigieg at 7% among those earning less than $50,000 and at 15% with those earning more than $100,000.
The national media tends to live in the wealthiest areas. The New York City and Washington, DC, metropolitan areas are both in the top 3% for per capita incomes among metro or micropolitan areas.
Buttigieg also seems to be doing his best among white Democrats. His support among white Democrats in the Quinnipiac poll of California and nationally stood at 8% and 6% respectively. Among the nonwhite crosstab listed in those places (Hispanics in California and African-Americans nationally), it was at 2% and 0% respectively. Other polls, as NBC News’ Steve Kornacki’s pointed out, have generally shown the same thing.
The media can have a blind spot when a Democratic candidate has a “diversity” problem. The reason is simple: the media is considerably whiter than America, according to the Pew Research Center. Newsrooms are certainly far whiter than a Democratic primary electorate.
Finally, Buttigieg is doing best among the very liberal block of Democrats. The aforementioned polls all show he does best among those who describe themselves as very liberal (or liberal in the case of the Iowa survey). The same thing was true of a Saint Anselm College poll of potential New Hampshire Democratic primary voters. In Iowa, for example, Buttigieg gets 13% from liberals and only 5% from non-liberals.
Guess who lives near a lot of liberals? The press in DC and New York do. Washington has more self-described liberals than any state, according to Gallup. New York City Democrats are more liberal than Democratic Primary voters nationally by a fairly wide margin.
In some ways, the media is dealing with the opposite problem that they did in the 2016 Republican primary. The national media were then dealing with a candidate, Donald Trump, who appealed to people who were very different than the people working in the media and who they lived among. Specifically, Trump’s support came from those without college degrees.
What exacerbated this problem was that the 2016 Republican primary didn’t break down along traditional lines, which guides reporters’ thinking.
Usually, Republican candidates are either being adored by religious conservatives or by more moderate Republicans. (This was largely the case in 2000 with George W. Bush and John McCain, 2008 with Mike Huckabee and McCain and 2012 with Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney.) Instead, then-candidate Donald Trump got support from religious conservatives and moderate Republicans, but did so primarily among those without a college degree.
Now, none of what I’ve written here is meant to dismiss Buttigieg’s chances. He’s clearly on the upswing, as I wrote weeks ago. It’s just that it’s important to keep in mind that Buttigieg is in the same camp in polling as candidates like Sen. Kamala Harris, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. He’s still polling in the high single digits for the most part. Former Vice President Joe Biden at around 30% and Sen. Bernie Sanders at around 20% are a world away for the moment.