Who Supports Mayor Pete Buttigieg in Wisconsin?

The South Bend mayor's support has been on the rise, but it's missing crucial demographics to succeed in the Democratic Primary.

The Recombobulation Area is a new weekly column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

Pete Buttigieg campaigns at Abraham Lincoln High School in Council Bluffs, Iowa. By Matt Johnson from Omaha, Nebraska, United States - IMG_4557, CC BY 2.0


Wisconsin might be the most important state in the 2020 presidential election, and the Marquette University Law School Poll is the state’s gold standard of measuring where voters stand, so here at The Recombobulation Area, each new poll is going to be monitored closely. 

The December poll did not show a whole lot of significant movement among the major categories that Marquette has been monitoring. Measures on impeachment and removal, President Trump’s job approval, and general election matchups did not see tectonic shifts. 

Recapping the poll, poll director Charles Franklin said, “The numbers are very clear on this. We have tight presidential races across the board. We have very little change on impeachment opinion from last month. The full set of testimony did not move voters … The stability here is really the striking bit.” 

So let’s take a look inside the Democratic presidential primary, and one of its most newsworthy candidates — fellow Midwesterner Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

While he’s still firmly in fourth in national polling, Buttigieg has made a push to join the frontrunners in Iowa and New Hampshire with elections in those two states less than two months away. 

And in Wisconsin, which won’t vote until April 7, the mayor remains in fourth — but now a not-so-distant fourth. Here’s how the primary polling has changed over the last month:

  • Joe Biden: 23% (-7) 

  • Bernie Sanders: 19% (+2)

  • Elizabeth Warren: 16% (+1)

  • Pete Buttigieg: 15% (+2)

  • Don’t Know: 11% (+1)

  • Cory Booker: 4% (+1)

  • Amy Klobuchar: 3% (-)

  • Andrew Yang: 3% (+1)

  • Michael Bloomberg: 3% (n/a)

It’s still a fairly undecided field. Only 34 percent of these Democratic primary voters say their mind is made up on who to vote for, and 11 percent still “don’t know” who their first choice would be. 

Among Democratic candidates near the top, Buttigieg is the least known, with 44 percent saying they “haven’t heard enough” to have an opinion on him, and another seven percent who “don’t know” where they stand. 

In a head-to-head matchup against Trump, Buttigieg saw some positive movement from the last poll, where he improved from 39 percent to 47 percent against the president to 43 percent to 44 percent, a more similar result to the October poll. 

So, where is the increase in Buttigieg’s support coming from?

Let’s drill down into five key categories among Democratic primary voters — gender, age, independents, race and ethnicity, and region. 

One note of caution before we proceed: Several of these categories include a small sample size of voters, particularly when it comes to race, as well as with certain age groups and regions, so there is a larger margin of error than with the full poll results. In an effort to broaden the sample size and gain a more complete look at the candidate’s support, many of the categories analyzed here include results from each of the last four polls conducted by Marquette University Law School. 

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Since August, Buttigieg’s overall percentage support has more than doubled — from 6 percent to 15 percent. That support is largely coming from older voters, men, and independent voters. Buttigieg, one of the youngest candidates in the field at 37 years old, is polling much higher among older voters than younger voters. Here’s how it breaks down in the latest poll (with November/October/August percentage results in parenthesis):

  • 18-29: 7% (9/3/8)

  • 30-44: 8% (9/4/7)

  • 45-59: 19% (14/12/6)

  • 60+: 18% (15/8/5)

In the four polls, he’s never been in double-digits in either the 18-29 or 30-44 age groups, and hasn’t ranked as a top-3 candidate in either demographic. 

With primary voters 45-59 and 60+, Buttigieg ranks 2nd behind only Biden in the newest poll, and has been in the top three in each of the last three polls.

His popularity is also on the rise with male voters, where he’s tied with Sanders as the top-ranked candidate among men in the new poll. It’s been a steady climb with male voters for Buttigieg, going from 6 percent in October to 15 percent in November to 19 percent in December.

Mayor Buttigieg has also seen that steady climb with independent voters*. Here’s how he’s polled by month (with ranking among the field in parenthesis):

  • August: 7% (4th)

  • October: 9% (4th)

  • November: 15% (2nd, tied with Sanders)

  • December: 18% (2nd)

He’s trailed only Biden with independents in the last two polls, and is the only candidate in the top four to see much positive momentum since October with independent voters — Biden is up slightly (21% to 24%), Sanders has remained the same (17%), Warren has lost ground (25% to 14%). 

Regionally, the South Bend mayor has seen consistent increases in the Madison area (7% in August, now 16%) and in the Green Bay/Appleton market (2% to 12%). He made big jumps in the city of Milwaukee and “rest of state” categories in the latest poll, but that climb has been uneven, so we’ll have to stay tuned to see if those hold. 

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Where things get more challenging for Buttigieg is, perhaps not surprisingly, with black voters.

Again, this is a small sample size, but in the October and November polls, not a single black voter chose Buttigieg as their first choice. He’s up to 4 percent in the December poll (and was at 5 percent in August). 

Biden and Sanders have held fairly consistently strong support across the four polls with black voters, and not unlike Buttigieg, Warren’s support there has also been poor. Biden has seen more than 40 percent support in three of the four polls, and Sanders has been between 21 and 32 percent support in each poll. 

With women voters, Buttigieg’s numbers have gone up since August, but not as sharply, and have remained flat from November to December. 

Here’s how the top four candidates stack up (new poll in bold, with November/October/August results in parenthesis) with women voters:

  • Biden: 27% (32/31/29)

  • Sanders: 18% (18/14/17)

  • Warren: 17% (16/26/19)

  • Buttigieg: 12% (12/8/6)

If Buttigieg is going to make some real noise in the Democratic primary, he needs to be doing better with women voters, and he definitely needs to be doing better with young voters and black voters. 

Truthfully, it’s difficult to see a real path forward for the South Bend mayor with these types of numbers in a Midwestern state — a part of the country where he’s been touting his success. 

Something we have to keep in mind with Wisconsin is that Trump won the state with fewer votes than Mitt Romney lost with in 2012. Perhaps the most important thing a candidate can do to win Wisconsin is to turn out voters, particularly voters of color. Trump in 2016 won the state by about 23,000 overall votes, and turnout dropped by about 3 percent — 92,000 total votes. That decline was even steeper with black voters, where turnout fell by about 19 percent from 2012 to 2016.  

While the mayor might be able to win over some independents or older voters, the true base of the party would be ignored were he to be the nominee. Pete Buttigieg might be on the rise, but there are plenty of reasons to be cautious about his long-term outlook for winning Wisconsin — and perhaps, in turn, the presidency.

*Using the “no leaners” subset, which includes the largest sample size of independent voters among party ID sample sets


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