Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana who beat Bernie Sanders in Iowa, has withdrawn from the Democratic presidential race following his dismal performance in the South Carolina primary.
Mr Buttigieg, 38, an openly gay veteran, vaulted onto the national stage last year and pulled off a stunning victory in Iowa followed by a strong second in New Hampshire. But he struggled after the first two contests because of his inability to attract non-white voters. He won only three delegates in Nevada last week, and did even worse in South Carolina, which signalled he would have struggled in the diverse states that vote on Super Tuesday.
His decision to abandon the race before the critical 14 states vote on Super Tuesday provided a big boost to Joe Biden. The former vice-president won South Carolina, but was still facing an uphill struggle because of the big number of moderates in the field. Mr Buttigieg’s withdrawal may put pressure on some of the other candidates, particularly Amy Klobuchar who has had even less success with non-white voters, to pull out of the race.
A Buttigieg campaign staffer confirmed to the Financial Times that the former mayor had told his aides he would withdraw from the race. Mr Buttigieg held a conference call with his team on Sunday afternoon to announce his decision.
He had pitched himself as the younger moderate alternative to Mr Biden, a claim that he made even more strongly after he came well ahead of the former vice-president in both Iowa and New Hampshire. He also tried to sell himself as the best alternative to Bernie Sanders, the self-declared socialist who wants an economic revolution.
But while Mr Buttigieg polled strongly in the overwhelmingly white states of Iowa and New Hampshire, his poor performance in Nevada with Hispanic and African American voters revealed a weakness in his campaign. He made a big effort to win black voters in South Carolina but his campaign fell flat in the southern state, which rescued Mr Biden.
His poll numbers in the Super Tuesday states — 14 contests that will award one-third of the total delegates — were low enough that he was in danger of winning very few delegates. Staying in the race would have hurt Mr Biden and made it more likely that Mr Sanders would head to the Democratic convention in Milwaukee in July with the biggest number of delegates, even if he did not have the 1,991 needed for outright victory.
In recent weeks, Mr Buttigieg had declined in the national polls, falling to fifth place on 11 per cent, just behind Elizabeth Warren. Mr Sanders leads on an average of 30 per cent, more than 11 points ahead of Mr Biden.
Mr Biden should get a bump in the polls following his big win in South Carolina, which showed his strength — and Mr Sanders’ weakness — with African Americans. He had argued that South Carolina would be the “firewall” that would rescue his campaign and show that he was the strongest candidate in more diverse states.
Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics said: “Buttigieg had a decent amount of appeal to white voters, which you could see even in the exit polls in South Carolina, but he never did anything for non-white voters, and you can’t win the Democratic nomination if you do so poorly with non-white voters. That was a running theme of Buttigieg’s campaign since he emerged as a leading candidate, and he just never figured that part out.”
Mr Kondik said Mr Buttigieg’s exit from the race could provide Mr Biden with a big boost on Super Tuesday, especially among white voters in states such as Massachusetts and Minnesota. “As good as Biden did in South Carolina and as good as he might do in other southern states on Tuesday, the south is not enough,” he said.
Many voters in early voting states expressed enthusiasm for Mr Buttigieg but said they were concerned about his age and would rather vote for him in a future presidential election.
Beth Elmaleh, 59, of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, said before Saturday’s primary: “Pete always seems to say the right thing, I am just worried about him being young; I am worried about how he would be received in the general election. I just wonder if he needs another four or eight years.”
The latest Morning Consult polling showed Mr Buttigieg’s supporters split over their second choice, with 21 per cent preferring Mr Sanders, 19 per cent backing Mr Biden, 19 per cent supporting Ms Warren and 17 per cent behind Michael Bloomberg.