Pete Buttigieg confronts his existential problem: Courting black voters

2020 Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg is trying to improve his standing amongst black voters. CNN's Abby Phillip reports.

Posted: Nov 26, 2019 5:20 AM
Updated: Nov 26, 2019 5:20 AM

Pete Buttigieg has a problem.

After jumping to a commanding position in Iowa and improving his chances in New Hampshire, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is confronting the real possibility that his inability to win over black voters will thwart his rise and, in the worst-case scenario for Buttigieg, sink his campaign.

Buttigieg has said for months that he needs "help" courting black voters and "has a lot of work to continue to do" in that effort. He has blamed his lack of support with African Americans on his lack of long-standing relationships that other presidential hopefuls, particularly former Vice President Joe Biden, have fostered for years.

But months removed from those first admissions, Buttigieg's standing with black voters remains unchanged. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found him at 0% with black voters in South Carolina, and even some of his more devout supporters are starting to worry whether he can overcome this deficiency. Buttigieg also lags majorly behind his top competitors in endorsements from black elected officials.

Black voters are critical to the Democratic Party, especially in South Carolina, where they will be a large and influential voting bloc in the party's electorate. But Buttigieg's inability to win black support will also hamper him in Nevada -- a state that is over 10% black and the third contest in the nominating process -- and a host of so-called Super Tuesday states like Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina, all places with large black populations that will vote on March 3.

These issues for Buttigieg were clear on a warm, late October afternoon when Buttigieg attracted what his campaign said was the largest crowd that any 2020 Democratic campaign has gathered in the state of South Carolina.

The rally was hosted in Rock Hill, a growing city that is 40% black. But you wouldn't be able to tell that from the largely white crowd that had gathered to see the South Bend mayor.

Nikita Jackson, who sits on the Rock Hill city council and introduced Buttigieg at the rally, says that event highlights that a campaign that wants to reach black has voters to go to them, not wait for black voters to come out to political events. She has urged the campaign to show up at local events rather than creating events and asking African American residents to come out, advice she says the campaign has taken.

"For working people, you cannot ask them to go outside of their norm," Jackson said. "Because going outside of their norm can create chaos in their household."

Despite her rousing introduction of Buttigieg at his rally, Jackson says she has not endorsed in the 2020 presidential race. Asked if Buttigieg is able to connect with black voters in the state, Jackson paused for several seconds.

"You can clearly see there wasn't a connection there because there wasn't a lot of African Americans there," Jackson finally answered. "His campaign is doing all that they can to try to connect with the minority vote."

Campaign slow to deploy staff to South Carolina

Buttigieg, who first gained national attention at a CNN town hall in March, knew on his first trip to South Carolina after that moment -- a late March swing through the state -- that courting black voters would be an issue for him. His events were big, but white, an observation he made to aides at the time.

But Buttigieg's campaign was slow to put a sizable team in the state and, when asked for months about his lack of operation in South Carolina, Buttigieg would often note that his campaign was on the precipice of making an announcement. To date, Buttigieg's campaign has put 40 paid staffers on the ground in South Carolina.

"The voters of South Carolina are still getting to know Pete," said Lauren Brown, Buttigieg's South Carolina spokeswoman. "And what we're observing on the ground is the more they learn about Pete, the more they want to know." A Buttigieg aide added that 60% of black voters in the recent Quinnipiac poll said they didn't know enough about Buttigieg to have an opinion.

The mayor also faced intense criticism for his handling of racial issues in South Bend. The high point of this criticism happened after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black South Bend resident, a crisis that forced the mayor to acknowledge city leaders "need help" in diversifying the city's overwhelmingly white police force.

And multiple aides now acknowledge that the campaign was slow to organize campaign events around black engagement, particularly in South Carolina. But they attribute the slowness to Buttigieg's dramatic rise in the Democratic field, which has forced his campaign to scale up rapidly.

Where the campaign was slow to grow in South Carolina, they were quick and deliberate in Iowa, where Buttigieg has strategically focused on proving viability in what campaign aides believe will be a make or break contest for their campaign.

Even still, despite the growing staff and offices in South Carolina, one Buttigieg aide in the state said the campaign continues to struggle to recruit staffers who are native to the state and understand the local culture.

"There are so many people not from South Carolina," one aide said. "They're coming in like flies to a picnic. They're transferring from other places."

The aide added that the efforts to engage black voters have increased, but complained that the campaign's top-down, metrics-focused structure can be at odds with the kind of grassroots organizing that is required to reach the state's black voters.

"Just because you have names on a paper and certain numbers of people on paper, it doesn't translate into a vote," the aide said.

In South Carolina, voters say Buttigieg will benefit from dramatically increasing the presence in this state.

"I think if he just can get down here, boots on the ground a little more often, he can probably win them over," said Rock Hill resident Dewanda Legette.

Efforts to gain black support

Buttigieg, in an effort to beef up his policy offerings aimed at black voters, released the Douglass Plan in July, a multi-pronged proposal that would seek to combat racial inequality by focusing on reforming health care, education, entrepreneurship, criminal justice and voting rights on a federal level.

In August, the campaign brought on Brandon Neal, former Democratic National Committee national political director, as a senior adviser focused on black outreach. Neal immediately went to work to broker meetings -- some public, but many more private -- between Buttigieg and prominent black political figures.

At one event, Buttigieg met with a group of black Democratic women who have called themselves "the Colored Girls," at a dinner that included former DNC chair Donna Brazile, Leah Daughtry, former CEO of the 2008 and 2016 DNC Conventions, longtime Democratic strategist Minyon Moore and Yolanda Caraway, founder of the public relations firm The Caraway Group.

Buttigieg is one of several 2020 presidential candidates who met with the women at a private dinner, which one attendee said went well. The group took a photo with Buttigieg and published it on social media after the event.

And in Atlanta, Buttigieg campaigned in a barber shop and beauty shop and participated in an event focused on black women — all without national cameras present — as part of an effort to privately build relationships between the relatively unknown candidate and black community leaders.

But those efforts have not translated into a boost in polls with black voters or an increase in endorsements from black elected officials.

Buttigieg's aides believe they are now at a critical time to move quickly to raise the candidate's profile and standing in the states that come after Iowa and New Hampshire, though they argue that they even with his current non-existent standing, it is not too late.

"If you look at 2007 and 2008 it's wasn't until Barack won Iowa that other voters started to pay attention and say wait a minute," Neal said. "There's always going to be caution, because they want to see how well this person is going to do."

"You're not going to put all your money on a single horse until you see the horse has viability," he added.

It's a case that Buttigieg recently made himself.

"Look, we've got a lot to do in a lot of states," the mayor said during a campaign swing through Iowa on Monday, "but I believe that if Iowa supports me, then that will put us on the trajectory, straight to the nomination and to the White House, and I'm very much hoping that prediction comes true."

Buttigieg's sexuality and the black vote

Another dynamic that the Buttigieg campaign has had to confront is the role his sexual orientation will play with how more religious, older black voters view his candidacy.

"It's a huge factor for me, being a minister," Rev. Jerome Lewis, the 56-year old head of House of Worship Christian Center in Las Vegas, said shortly before offering the opening prayer for a Biden event in West Last Vegas. "I love him as a person, I just don't stand for his beliefs. I believe what the Bible says in regard to that. ... I just think some of his policies would be just not what my religious beliefs are."

"I think (it hurts him with black voters)," Lewis continued. "I think that is something that makes people of religion to look at that differently. ... It would play a factor."

Jamal Brown, a Biden spokesman, responded to Lewis by saying Biden "has spent his career advancing LGBTQ rights" and that "He, and our entire campaign, welcome Mayor Pete's historic candidacy and disavow the pastor's views."

That contention has been hotly disputed by prominent Democrats, including Rev. Al Sharpton, who hosted Buttigieg at a National Action Network event in Atlanta last week.

"There are some homophobic blacks, there are some homophobic whites," Sharpton said. "We don't have an epidemic of homophophia, but we have some homophobics, just like any other community."

South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the dean of the Democratic Party in the state, from South Carolina said earlier this year there is "no question" Buttigieg being gay is an issue for older black voters in the state.

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you otherwise, because I think everybody knows that's an issue," Clyburn said. "But I'm saying it's an issue not the way it used to be. My own grandson is very much for him. He is a paid staffer working on the campaign."

Buttigieg responded to Clyburn by saying he believes people are capable of "moving past old prejudices."

Buttigieg more recently has sought to connect with black voters by talking about how he personally connects with the struggle for civil rights because of the fight for LGBTQ rights and his own "personal struggle" as a gay man.

At November's debate, during an exchange about his outreach to black voters, Buttigieg said, "While I do not have the experience of ever having been discriminated against because of the color of my skin, I do have the experience of sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country, turning on the news and seeing my own rights come up for debate, and seeing my rights expanded by a coalition of people like me and people not at all like me, working side by side, shoulder to shoulder, making it possible for me to be standing here."

Momentum from Iowa

The view within the campaign is that their ability to build a diverse coalition will only strengthen Buttigieg's standing in Iowa and a strong performance in Iowa similarly helps them break through with voters of color in South Carolina.

In December, the campaign plans to intensify its push to reach black voters, focusing on the issues of addressing poverty and faith, both of which they view as well within Buttigieg's wheelhouse and a key opportunity to connect with black voters -- particularly those who live in the south.

On the agenda is a multi-stop tour of southern cities where Buttigieg plans to engage with black voters and local African American leaders around those issues. To kick off the effort, Buttigieg will attend the church of North Carolina pastor and activist Rev. William Barber and participate in an event focused on addressing poverty with Barber next week.

Aides have dismissed criticism that they lack endorsements from black and Hispanic elected leaders in Washington, noting that Buttigieg is running as a Washington outsider and that while there are two credible African American candidates in the race as well as a former vice president who was Barack Obama's running mate.

"Biden has a 40-year advantage," said Neal. "An advantage over someone who just launched his presidential campaign 12 months ago."

The campaign has focused much of their efforts on building a roster of black support from South Bend, an acknowledgment that the high profile police shooting of a black man this summer and long-standing tensions between Buttigieg and some local black residents have become part of a narrative that Buttigieg has had historic trouble with black outreach.

Outside advisers have urged Buttigieg to build a base of support from his hometown, arguing that former President Bill Clinton was able to overcome being a relatively unknown national political figure by having a strong base of support from African Americans in Arkansas.

Sensing an opening, and noting Buttigieg's rise in the polls, Biden's campaign blasted out the endorsement of a longtime South Bend city counselor and Buttigieg antagonist Oliver Davis, who also told a reporter that he doubted Buttigieg could beat Trump.

And while there is largely agreement that Buttigieg has time to improve with black voters in South Carolina before the February 29 primary, Jaime Harrison, the former South Carolina Democratic Party chair who is also running for Senate in South Carolina said the state is also a gateway that unlocks a number of other southern Super Tuesday states.

"I would like to see all of them here more -- from Pete and, and Biden and -- Booker and Harris are here a lot," Harrison said. "There is a multiplier effect here in South Carolina that I think people underestimate."

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