New poll shows Buttigieg in the lead in Iowa. Can he win it all?

Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one key takeaway every weekday and a wrap-up each weekend. Reminder: There are 85 days until the Iowa caucuses and 359 days until the 2020 election.

When Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old openly gay mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana, announced his presidential campaign in April, he was the longest of long shots to win the Democratic nomination.

But now Buttigieg is one of the few remaining Democrats with a path to victory, a path that is getting clearer day by day. 

On Tuesday Monmouth University released a blockbuster new poll showing Buttigieg leading the field in Iowa for the first time. According to Monmouth, 22 percent of likely caucus-goers now list Buttigieg as their top choice, putting him 3 points ahead of former Vice President Joe Biden (19 percent), 4 points ahead of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (18 percent) and 9 points ahead of Sen. Bernie Sanders (13 percent).

Monmouth previously surveyed the Hawkeye State in August, after Buttigieg’s initial bump but before his recent effort to rebrand himself as a kind of Goldilocks candidate for wavering Dems: less status quo than Biden, more pragmatic than Warren, and a safer bet than either of them to beat President Trump next November. The August poll found Buttigieg at 8 percent — meaning that he’s gained 14 points in Iowa over the last three months.

“Buttigieg is emerging as a top pick for a wide variety of Iowa Democrats,” said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute. “You really can’t pigeonhole his support to one particular group. He is doing well with voters regardless of education or ideology.”

Critics will be quick to dismiss Monmouth as just one poll among many. But there are two reasons they should take it seriously. First, Murray is widely considered one of the best pollsters in the business; according to Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight, Monmouth is one of only six “A+” rated polling outfits currently surveying American public opinion. Second, Monmouth isn’t the only poll showing a Buttigieg surge where it matters most, in key early states.

In Iowa, Buttigieg has long been outperforming his national polling average, which is currently hovering around 8 percent. In late September he leapt into double digits; in mid-October he passed Sanders and moved into third place.

But in the last two weeks he has picked up momentum in the state. Three high-quality Iowa polls have come out this month: Monmouth, Quinnipiac and New York Times/Siena College. All three show Buttigieg in either first or second place, and together they have established a clear trend line in the overall Iowa polling average. Since the last Democratic debate, on Oct. 15 — the one where Buttigieg reintroduced himself as a scrappier, more passionate proponent of Midwestern center-left pragmatism, to rave reviews — Warren has fallen by about 2 points overall; Biden has fallen by about 4 points; and Buttigieg has risen by about 6 points. The Hoosier is now within 0.4 points, on average, of overtaking Warren. 

And Iowa isn’t the only place where Buttigieg is gaining ground. The lone New Hampshire poll released so far this month, by Quinnipiac, shows him at 15 percent in a three-way statistical tie with Warren and Sanders for second place. 

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Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg works the grill during the Polk County Democrats Steak Fry, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during the Iowa Democratic Party's Liberty and Justice Celebration, Friday, Nov. 1, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo: Nati Harnik/AP)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 23: Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigeig speaks during a news conference January 23, 2019 in Washington, DC. Buttigeig held a news conference to announce that he is forming an exploratory committee to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks at a Democratic Party fundraising dinner, the Liberty and Justice Celebration, in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S. November 1, 2019. REUTERS/Eric Thayer
Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a campaign rally in front of the State House after filing his declaration of candidacy papers to get his name on the ballot for the New Hampshire primary in Concord, New Hampshire, U.S. October 30, 2019. REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz
Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg visits the gift shop after filing his declaration of candidacy papers to get his name on the ballot for the New Hampshire primary at the State House in Concord, New Hampshire, U.S. October 30, 2019. REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz
ROCHESTER, NEW HAMPSHIRE - NOVEMBER 11: Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg greets people after making a Veterans Day address at the Rochester Opera House on November 11, 2019 in Rochester, New Hampshire. Buttigieg is on the last day of a four day bus tour as he campaigns across the state. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS -- Episode 547 -- Pictured: (l-r) South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg during an interview with host Seth Meyers on June 22, 2017 -- (Photo by: Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, center, speaks with attendees during a campaign stop in Ankeny, Iowa, U.S., on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. A flurry of proposals to slap new taxes on the ultra-wealthy, extend Medicare to all Americans and make college debt-free reflect a rapidly changing Democratic Party that sees a sharp left turn as the path to defeating President Donald Trump. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, speaks during a campaign stop in Ankeny, Iowa, U.S., on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. A flurry of proposals to slap new taxes on the ultra-wealthy, extend Medicare to all Americans and make college debt-free reflect a rapidly changing Democratic Party that sees a sharp left turn as the path to defeating President Donald Trump. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
THE VIEW - Mayor of South Bend, Indiana and democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg visits ABC's 'The View' on Thursday, January 31, 2019. 'The View' airs Monday-Friday (11:00 am-12:00 noon, ET) on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Lorenzo Bevilaqua/ABC via Getty Images) JOY BEHAR, PETER BUTTIGIEG, SUNNY HOSTIN
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is exploring a Presidential candidacy speaks at the University of Chicago on February 13, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Joshua Lott / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOSHUA LOTT/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 14: 32nd Mayor of South Bend, Indiana and 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is seen arriving at 'The Late Show With Stephen Colbert' at the Ed Sullivan Theater on February 14, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images)
AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 09: Pete Buttigieg speaks onstage at Conversations About America's Future: Mayor Pete Buttigieg during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater on March 8, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Hutton Supancic/Getty Images for SXSW)
NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 13: The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and guest Pete Buttigieg during Thursday's February 14, 2019 show. (Photo by Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JULY 07: Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks on stage at 2019 ESSENCE Festival Presented By Coca-Cola at Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on July 07, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for ESSENCE)
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JULY 07: Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks at the 25th Essence Festival at Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on July 07, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Josh Brasted/FilmMagic)
PROVINCETOWN, MA - JULY 5: Signs emblazoned with "Pete Town" are left behind after a rally for U.S. presidential candidate and mayor of South Bend, IN Pete Buttigieg in Provincetown, MA on July 5, 2019. Hundreds of people were in attendance for the democratic presidential hopeful. (Photo by Erin Clark for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
PROVINCETOWN, MA - JULY 5: Theresa Moehlman, left, and Andrea Sawyer attend a rally for U.S. presidential candidate and mayor South Bend, IN Pete Buttigieg in Provincetown, MA on July 5, 2019. Hundreds of people were in attendance for the Democratic presidential hopeful. (Photo by Erin Clark for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JULY 02: Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg (L) meets with Rev. Jesse Jackson at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition Annual International Convention on July 2, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. Buttigieg is dealing with racial tension in South Bend following the shooting death of Eric Logan, a black man, who was shot by South Bend Police Sgt. Ryan O'Neill, who is white. O'Neill shot Logan while investigating a report of car break-ins in the area. Logan was reported to be holding a knife when he was shot. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JULY 02: Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg (L) speaks with Rev. Jesse Jackson at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition Annual International Convention on July 2, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. Buttigieg is dealing with racial tension in South Bend following the shooting death of Eric Logan, a black man, who was shot by South Bend Police Sgt. Ryan O'Neill, who is white. O'Neill shot Logan while investigating a report of car break-ins in the area. Logan was reported to be holding a knife when he was shot. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JULY 02: Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition Annual International Convention on July 2, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. Buttigieg is dealing with racial tension in South Bend following the shooting death of Eric Logan, a black man, who was shot by South Bend Police Sgt. Ryan O'Neill, who is white. O'Neill shot Logan while investigating a report of car break-ins in the area. Logan was reported to be holding a knife when he was shot. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
SOUTH BEND, INDIANA - JUNE 29: Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg greets residents before the start of a Peace Walk hosted by Christ Temple Apostolic Church on June 29, 2019 in South Bend, Indiana. The event was held as the funeral for Eric Logan was being held in nearby Mishawaka. Logan was shot and killed by South Bend Police Sgt. Ryan O'Neill who was investigating a report of car break-ins in the area. Logan was reported to be holding a knife when he was shot. The shooting caused outrage in the community and turmoil for Buttigieg as a mayor and as a candidate. “It’s a mess” said Buttigieg referring to the shooting during the presidential debate in Miami on Thursday. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
SOUTH BEND, INDIANA - JUNE 29: Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg greets residents before the start of a Peace Walk hosted by Christ Temple Apostolic Church on June 29, 2019 in South Bend, Indiana. The event was held as the funeral for Eric Logan was being held in nearby Mishawaka. Logan was shot and killed by South Bend Police Sgt. Ryan O'Neill who was investigating a report of car break-ins in the area. Logan was reported to be holding a knife when he was shot. The shooting caused outrage in the community and turmoil for Buttigieg as a mayor and as a candidate. “It’s a mess” said Buttigieg referring to the shooting during the presidential debate in Miami on Thursday. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
SOUTH BEND, INDIANA - JUNE 29: Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg participates in a Peace Walk hosted by Christ Temple Apostolic Church on June 29, 2019 in South Bend, Indiana. The event was held as the funeral for Eric Logan was being held in nearby Mishawaka. Logan was shot and killed by South Bend Police Sgt. Ryan O'Neill who was investigating a report of car break-ins in the area. Logan was reported to be holding a knife when he was shot. The shooting caused outrage in the community and turmoil for Buttigieg as a mayor and as a candidate. “It’s a mess” said Buttigieg referring to the shooting during the presidential debate in Miami on Thursday. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
HOMESTEAD, FLORIDA - JUNE 28: Democratic Presidential candidate, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former housing secretary Julian Castro, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) speak to the media as they visit the outside of a detention center for migrant children on June 28, 2019 in Homestead, Florida. Democratic presidential candidates visited the detention center, which is the nation's largest center for detaining immigrant children, as the candidates spend time in the Miami area after participating in a nationally televised debate. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
NBC NEWS ELECTION COVERAGE -- The First Democratic Debate -- Pictured: Pete Buttigieg, at The Knight Concert Hall, Miami Florida on Thursday, June 27, 2019-- (Photo by: Gustavo Cabellero /NBC News/MSNBC/Telemundo)
Democratic presidential hopefuls Mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 27, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) / ALTERNATIVE CROP (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
COLUMBIA, SC - JUNE 22: Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg addresses the crowd at the 2019 South Carolina Democratic Party State Convention on June 22, 2019 in Columbia, South Carolina. Democratic presidential hopefuls are converging on South Carolina this weekend for a host of events where the candidates can directly address an important voting bloc in the Democratic primary. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
RICHMOND, VIRGINIA - JUNE 15: Democratic presidential candidate and Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg attends the 2019 Blue Commonwealth Gala fundraiser June 15, 2019 in Richmond, Virginia. Nearly 1,800 attended the event featuring Buttigieg and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, SC - JUNE 15: Democratic presidential candidate South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg participates in the Black Economic Alliance Forum at the Charleston Music Hall on June 15, 2019 in Charleston, South Carolina. The Black Economic Alliance, is a nonpartisan group founded by Black executives and business leaders, and is hosting the forum in order to help Black voters understand the candidate's platforms. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 12: Democratic presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg shakes a woamans hand as he attends a rally protesting against President Donald Trump policies outside of the White House in Washington on Wednesday June 12, 2019. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA - JUNE 09: Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks at the Iowa Democratic Party's Hall of Fame Dinner on June 9, 2019 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Nearly all of the 23 Democratic candidates running for president were campaigning in Iowa this weekend. President Donald Trump has two events scheduled in the state on Tuesday. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA, UNITED STATES - 2019/06/11: South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is running for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States answers question during a press gaggle after delivering an hour long speech on foreign policy and security at the Indiana University Auditorium in Bloomington. (Photo by Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
DES MOINES, IOWA - JUNE 08: Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg arrives for a campaign stop at the Capital City Pride Fest on June 08, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. Most of the more than 20 candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for president are campaigning at various locations in Iowa this weekend. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
SHOWALTER FOUNTAIN, BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA, UNITED STATES - 2019/06/10: Screen printed posters dry after Jim Beck, of badkneests, made them as a fundraiser for South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is running for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States, at the Showalter Fountain on the campus of Indiana University. Beck was exchanging the posters for a donation he will contribute to Buttigieg's presidential campaign before a representative of the auditorium said he had to move to the free speech zone blocks away in Dunn Meadow. Tickets for Buttigieg's speech on foreign policy and national security Tuesday were being distributed nearby at the Indiana University Auditorium. For those who didn't get tickets Monday, according to a press release, "A standby line for general public who did not claim a ticket will be recognized beginning at 9:30 a.m. in front of the School of Art, Architecture, and Design just west of the Auditorium.". (Photo by Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
DES MOINES, IOWA - JUNE 08: Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a campaign stop at the Capital City Pride Fest on June 08, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. Most of the more than 20 candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for president are campaigning at various locations in Iowa this weekend. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - JUNE 06: Democratic presidential candidate and Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg speaks to a crowd at the African American Leadership Council on June 6, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. The DNC hosted its African American Leadership Council (AALC) Summit at the Westin Peachtree Plaza in downtown Atlanta. (Photo by Dustin Chambers/Getty Images)
MSNBC - Election Coverage "Hardball Town Hall with Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Chris Matthews" -- Pictured: (l-r) Chris Matthews, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (Photo by: David Moir/MSNBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 01: Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg hold signs as he speaks during the California Democrats 2019 State Convention at the Moscone Center on June 01, 2019 in San Francisco, California. Several Democratic presidential candidates are speaking at the California Democratic Convention that runs through Sunday. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 23: Democratic presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg (R) answers questions from reporter Robert Costa (L) at a Washington Post Live discussion May 23, 2019 in Washington, DC. Buttigieg’s appearance was the first of the Washington Post’s “2020 Candidates” series of discussions. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 22: Mayor Pete Buttigieg poses backstage at Mayor Pete Buttigieg in Conversation with The Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart interview at 92nd Street Y on May 22, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FLORIDA - MAY 20: Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a grassroots fundraiser at the Wynwood Walls on May 20, 2019 in Miami, Florida. Buttigieg is one of more than 20 candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for president. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FLORIDA - MAY 20: Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a grassroots fundraiser at the Wynwood Walls on May 20, 2019 in Miami, Florida. Buttigieg is one of more than 20 candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for president. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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The likeliest explanation for Buttigieg’s ascent is that he’s benefiting from widespread anxiety among rank-and-file Democrats about the general election prospects of Warren (too far left) and Biden (not sharp enough) — an anxiety that is more pronounced in places like Iowa and New Hampshire, where voters are currently paying much closer attention than their counterparts elsewhere. That may be why Monmouth’s new Iowa poll found that Buttigieg boasts the best favorability rating in the field (73 percent favorable versus 10 percent unfavorable), whereas net favorability ratings for Biden and Warren have declined since August by 13 points and 16 points, respectively.  

Meanwhile, Buttigieg is alone among the alternatives to Warren, Biden and Sanders in having the money and organization to actually compete going forward. After two stellar fundraising quarters, the South Bend mayor entered the homestretch with more cash on hand ($23.4 million) than anyone except Warren ($25.7 million) and Sanders ($33.7 million). For comparison, Biden had only $9 million in the bank at the end of Q3. Buttigieg also boasts more field offices in Iowa than anyone else (and the same is true in New Hampshire).

Given all this, it’s increasingly possible to see how Buttigieg could win the nomination. A flush, resurgent Sanders, fresh off securing the endorsement of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and rallying 25,000 supporters in Queens, continues to split the left-wing vote with Warren. Warren continues to take incoming fire. Biden’s poll numbers continue to sag, especially in the early states. And Buttigieg peaks at just the right moment, surprising everyone on caucus day with a first- or second-place finish. Biden and Sanders limp into New Hampshire, where Buttigieg repeats the feat. And suddenly, after another poor showing from Biden in South Carolina, his firewall state, it’s a two-person race: Warren the progressive champion versus Buttigieg the Rust Belt pragmatist. Perhaps Sanders sticks around, siphoning votes from Warren. And state by state, Buttigieg eventually prevails.

Earlier this month Buttigieg made waves with a suggestion — which he later partially retracted to avoid sounding presumptuous — that the 2020 Democratic primary contest was “getting to be a two-way” race between him and Warren.

“It’s early to say,” he told Showtime’s “The Circus.” But “a world where we’re getting somewhere is a world where it’s coming down to the two of us.”

This has long been Buttigieg’s plan. It won’t necessarily come to fruition; he’s yet to absorb the kind of frontrunner attacks that have tarnished Biden and Warren. But for now, at least, the plan seems to be working.

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