Could ‘Maltese’ Mayor Pete do it? The fight to unseat Trump from the White House

Despite a surge by Buttigieg and Klobuchar, the RCP average puts Sanders four points ahead of Biden... who gets to fight Trump for the White House?

L-R: Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, and Michael Bloomberg
L-R: Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, and Michael Bloomberg

On Tuesday night, the self-declared democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, campaigning for a national health care system, won the New Hampshire primary, leading the more moderate Maltese-American Pete Buttigieg by less than two percentage points. Surprisingly Amy Klobuchar, another moderate, finished third with more than twice the support of former Vice President Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren.

Despite the surge by Buttigieg and Klobuchar in the first two primaries, an average of all national polls by Real Clear Politics still puts Bernie Sanders four points ahead of Joe Biden, with billionaire and former New York mayor Bloomberg in third place despite not having contested the first two primaries.

There are now two most probable scenarios for the Democrat race for presidential nominee: the respectable Five Thirty Eight pollster Nate Silver says we will see either a Bernie Sanders victory, or a contested convention where no candidate emerges with a clear majority among pledged delegates, a chance that is now “high and increasing.”

One former volunteer of the Sanders campaign in 2016 and the Buttigieg run for the 2016 DNC chair, lawyer Brendan Zerafa, thinks the early races have already established a pattern. “After Iowa and New Hampshire, two front-runners emerged ahead of the crowd: Sanders and Buttigieg. Biden and Warren have fallen behind, and this is manifested in the latest polls which are now showing Sanders leading nationally.”

Sanders has, so far, won the popular vote in both Iowa and New Hampshire but Buttigieg has performed better than expected in most polls, emerging as the front-runner in a crowded field of moderates who cast doubt on Sanders’s electability.

The states of Iowa and New Hampshire may be insignificant in terms of delegate counts, but candidates who perform well in these states benefit from the name recognition and familiarity crucial in future contests. This may explain why Buttigieg was so keen to declare victory in Iowa before the votes were even counted.

“The early states seem to have burst Biden’s claim that he is best suited to beat Trump. Buttigieg and even Klobuchar are now deemed more electable than all others in the race,” says international relations expert Prof. Carmen Sammut.

“Klobuchar’s rise probably cost Buttigieg a clear popular victory in New Hampshire and she might eventually sweep Warren off the race,” she says, although Sanders may also may gains if Warren – who competes with Sanders for the progressive and left-wing vote – drops out before Super Tuesday, the day when all other states vote.

Joe Biden (left) and Bernie Sanders (right)
Joe Biden (left) and Bernie Sanders (right)

The decisive black and Latino vote

Biden’s and Sanders’s more ethnically diverse support may be an asset in the next months.

Sanders can rely on a grassroots movement which attracts younger voters from different backgrounds, united by strong convictions on issues like universal healthcare, which contrasts with more policy ‘lite’ approaches like Buttigieg’s. The movement gives Sanders the ability to mobilise crowds.

Sanders is also supported by members of Congress of minority origins Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Somali-born Ilhan Omar. In Iowa, Sanders overwhelmingly won over Latinos with over 60% of the few majority-Latino caucus sites. Sanders has also managed to unite the party’s progressive wing by eclipsing Warren, whereas the more “establishment friendly” field remains crowded and divided, with no single candidate emerging as the ‘anti-Bernie’.

The next contest will be the Nevada caucuses on 22 February, followed a week later by South Carolina. Both Buttigieg and Klobuchar face the uphill battle of winning over black and Latino voters in a short amount of time. So far neither has made much progress with non-white voters or lower-income voters.

Sammut notes that Nevada and South Carolina have diverse constituencies, namely Latinos, Black and Asian. “Police violence in South Bend, under Pete Buttigieg’s watch, implied that persuading black voters was a veritable struggle,” she says of criticism at Buttigieg’s mayorship and the controversial removal of a black sheriff. But she points out a recent poll showing only 13% of black voters had an unfavourable opinion of him after making ground by presenting the Douglass Plan, which is aimed at empowering black Americans.

Zerafa recalls that back in 2016 it was Sanders who had a similar problem with black voters. “Ironically… it was the major reason he came up short versus Hillary Clinton. This time round, it seems Bernie’s standing with Latinos and black voters has improved greatly.”

Michael Bloomberg
Michael Bloomberg

Billionaire with a war chest

And then comes Super Tuesday on 3 March, when billionaire and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg hopes his advertising spree will catapult him into contention.

Super Tuesday tends to reward broad name recognition and familiarity and resources because candidates have less time to campaign in town-hall meetings as they did in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Buttigieg may well be over-performing in rural areas. while Klobuchar is more dependent on suburban voters. But to stay on in the race candidates need funding. Buttigieg has increasingly become the target of criticism by the Sanders and Warren camps that Wall Street and billionaires back him. But Sammut points out that a public list of contributors shows that only 0.2% of the funds came from “billionaires” and that over 800,000 people collectively donated over $75 million so far. “This may sound like a massive amount but in fact it may soon run out if people do not donate in the run-up to Super Tuesday when many states vote on the same day.”

Despite Buttigieg’s courtship of some of America’s richest people, which reportedly netted him some 40 contributions from billionaires and their spouses, he trailed Sanders by nearly $10 million in the last quarter of 2019.

On this count Michael Bloomberg’s endless flow of money may have an advantage. Bloomberg missed the initial primaries but will contest the big states on Super Tuesday. And wins in both Nevada and South Carolina could bolster Biden’s momentum before Super Tuesday, where he is especially strong among black voters, who prevail among Democrats in South Carolina. Brendan Zerafa says this primary will be one to watch. “Whilst I believe that Joe Biden’s time is up, we still need to see the outcome of the South Carolina vote, which Biden is using as his firewall.”

Biden’s single-digit performance in New Hampshire was a demoralising blow, and has raised more doubts on his viability as a candidate. Regarded as the Democrats front-runner for months, benefitting from name recognition as Obama’s vice-president and appeal to working class voters, he may have lost his sheen.

And on Super Tuesday the Latino vote is expected to flex its muscle. California and Texas have not just the largest Hispanic populations, but they bring the greatest number of delegates.

While Bloomberg may have the most resources to stop Sanders, the Wall Street billionaire’s candidature further energises Sanders supporters, Zerafa notes. “Bloomberg has shown himself to be willing to invest in adverts and so far he has spent more than $300 million in this regard. His strong financial war chest allows him to do this and as a result, he’s being rewarded by ever-increasing support nationwide.”

Questions have been raised on Sanders’s ability to take on Trump due to his identification with democratic socialism, but his ability to communicate with rust belt voters may prove an asset. With a crowded field, it is also possible that none of the candidates emerge victorious, leading to a possible brokered convention, where it will be the votes of so-called “super delegates”, that will be decisive.

But Zerafa believes that the race will eventually become polarised between Sanders and the establishment wing of the party. “If I had to guess now how the final result would be, I’d say that the race will likely develop to be Sanders vs. Buttigieg or Bloomberg”.

But he makes one important proviso. “A candidate that obtains a good vote in Iowa, might not necessarily obtain a good result in the Deep South. Likewise, a candidate that does really well in the Mid-West might not do well enough in California.”

Pete Buttigieg
Pete Buttigieg

What makes Pete a possibility

Although Buttigieg faces an uphill struggle, he has so far defied the odds. Sammut does not hide her sympathies for Buttigieg, but backs her support with reasons which go beyond his Maltese origins.

“I have followed Buttigieg long before he announced his presidential bid. Then I was more intrigued to see how the son of a well-known Gramscian scholar, Prof. Joseph Buttigieg, would roll out a political programme in the US context.”

Buttigieg is neither rich nor does he come from a well-established political family. Neither does he have any name recognition whatsoever and his political experience was limited to South Bend. “To top it all, homophobic quarters could have easily frustrated his effort,” she adds. But his energy, intellectual capabilities and commitment to public service seem to have compensated for all this.

“In less than a year, Buttigieg has risen to achieve the biggest number of elected delegates yet (a total of 12 delegates) and is in a close tie with Sanders when it comes to the popular vote… and now has a strong lead in the moderate lane of the Democratic campaign that ultimately has the biggest support at a national level.”

Sammut sees Buttigieg leading a principled campaign, inviting his virtual and on-the-ground supporters to abide to the “Rules of the Road”: respect; belonging; truth; teamwork; boldness; responsibility; substance; discipline, excellence and joy. “These in themselves are a sharp contrast with Trumpism, who is currently reigning supreme over the Republican camp.”