Missteps have hurt. Buttigieg has touted his “Douglass Plan” for attacking racial and economic disparities, but a press release about it included the names of three black South Carolinians as endorsers who then told the Intercept they were not on board. The Buttigieg camp says the greater hurdle is that their man simply isn’t well-known yet by South Carolina’s black Democrats, who make up 61% of the electorate, and that a win in Iowa would begin to change that picture. “Pete is new on the scene. He hasn’t been marinating in Washington for decades,” says Chris Meagher, the campaign’s national press secretary. “In South Carolina, fully half of the people polled have no opinion of him. And that’s even higher with African Americans. We’ve spent a lot of time in Iowa, and so he has a higher name recognition there than in other places. You’re seeing him start to gain traction because people are starting to get to know him. Poll after poll shows his high faves to unfaves. That’s what tells us the more people get to know him, the more they like him.” His rivals, of course, will try to drive up the unfavorable count. “There’s a lot of negative information that can be communicated when it comes to Pete’s record,” a national Democratic strategist says. “There’s his handling of the South Bend Police Department. There’s the [1,000 houses in 1,000 days] controversy piece. Plus the guy is a former McKinsey consultant, and that’s what he looks and sounds like.”
There is also a (Bill) Clintonian dexterity to Buttigieg that is both impressive and unsettling. He began his campaign highlighting liberal-friendly ideas like eliminating the Electoral College, but has recently been tacking to the center, trying to establish himself as an alternative to Biden. For months, many of Buttigieg’s statements on Medicare for All seemed to be in favor of single-payer proposals that would eliminate private insurance, but Buttigieg also consistently said supportive things about a public option. Lately he has leaned heavily into “Medicare for All Who Want It,” instead of the more dramatic shifts advocated by Warren and Bernie Sanders. “It’s a bad issue for them, and a good issue for Pete,” says Lis Smith, a senior adviser to Buttigieg.