But as Warren rose, so did a backlash among Democratic donors and officials who saw her economic policies as dangerously radical and feared she could not defeat Trump. As Biden careened from poor performance to poor performance, they began searching in earnest for an alternative. Booker might have been it. He was better known to party and financial elites than centrists such as Klobuchar, Bennet, and Montana Governor Steve Bullock; possessed more star power; and offered a greater chance of putting together the coalition of black and relatively moderate white voters that usually powers successful Democratic presidential campaigns. Unlike Kamala Harris, another African-American senator who is more moderate than Sanders and Warren, Booker also had a long record of making the very arguments for a pro-business, deficit-conscious liberalism that the Democratic elites who feared Warren and Sanders craved.
Yet Booker refused to play that role. And that refusal helped Pete Buttigieg step into the breach. Initially, Buttigieg’s rise was powered less by ideology than persona. His first breakthrough came during a CNN town hall appearance in March. By spring, his novel combination of talents and attributes—gay, veteran, religious, Midwestern, hyper-educated, dazzlingly articulate—was attracting comparisons to another political unicorn, Barack Obama. But after rising into the mid-single digits in national polls by April, Buttigieg plateaued through the summer and into the fall. As late as September, he still trailed Biden, Warren, and Sanders in both Iowa and New Hampshire by double digits.