Who Will Be King of the Moderates?

With this year’s crowded Democratic field, a lot of punditry has focused on the concept of ideological lanes. The idea is that candidates are mostly fighting over the voters whose position on the political spectrum is close to their own. Generally, observers break the field into two lanes: The far-left lane occupied by Sanders and (arguably) Warren, and the center-left lane occupied by pretty much everyone else. Everyone generally agrees that there are more voters in the center-left lane, but they also have more candidates splitting their votes.

Is this a good model? It’s certainly accurate for some voters, but hardened politicos tend to underestimate the power of non-ideological forces to sway voters. Sanders, for instance, has attracted plenty of supporters who don’t see themselves as socialists with his righteous anger. And what about unconventional candidates like Yang and Gabbard, who’ve built small but passionate contingents largely on single-issue platforms?

Still, ideology is a powerful force. So let’s take as given the conventional wisdom of the lane model: Sooner or later, this primary will come down to a one-on-one contest between a far-left candidate and a center-left candidate. Last week, I wrote that I expected that contest to be between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Through all the ups and downs of this long campaign, Biden and Sanders have consistently been on top in nationwide polling, so that felt like a safe bet.

Then Iowa happened.

As I’m writing this, we only have preliminary results out of Iowa, but those results show Sanders and Buttigieg coming out on top. How do I feel about this? Surprised. Excited. And also nervous. Before Iowa, I’d just about resigned myself to settling for Biden, a boring but reliable choice. Now it feels like Mayor Pete has a real chance. The surprise out of Iowa isn’t just that Buttigieg did so well, but that the other center-left candidates did so poorly. It’s too early to count Biden out, but if New Hampshire and Nevada go the same way for him, Pete Buttigieg will be crowned King of the Moderates, champion of all center-left voters in the remaining primaries.

Or will he? Maybe we don’t get one candidate per lane. Maybe Biden takes his drubbings stoically and refuses to drop out. Maybe Warren, too. Or Bloomberg! In a 3-or-more-way race, it becomes likely that no candidate gets a majority, and we have a no-holds-barred brokered convention. That’s a nightmare scenario for the Democrats. The longer the contest, the more the candidates snipe at each other, the more appealing the incumbent looks to swing voters.

From the start of the campaign, I’ve believed that Mayor Pete had the potential to be a unifying candidate. For the sake of everyone who wants Donald J. Trump out of the White House, I hope I’m right.

This is Part 9 of an ongoing series making the case for Pete Buttigieg in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries.

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