Pete Buttigieg’s struggle in appealing to black voters was on display in South Carolina recently, where several voters attending a Joe Biden event said that they had not heard of the 37-year-old presidential hopeful.
“Another one? How many more are we going to get in the race here?” 56-year-old J. Denise Cromwell, who runs a homeless outreach program, told the Washington Examiner on Sunday.
Community organizer Raynique Syas, 34, said that she had heard of presidential hopefuls businessman Andrew Yang, Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, but not Buttigieg.
Aided by heavy press coverage in the early months of the year, the openly gay South Bend, Indiana, mayor and Afghanistan Navy Reserve veteran shot from being relatively unknown to a top-tier candidate and raked in nearly $25 million in the second quarter of 2019. But he lacks prowess with black voters, who make up a majority of Democratic primary voters in the early primary state of South Carolina.
A CNN poll conducted in late July found Buttigieg with 4% support from likely Democratic primary voters nationwide, dragged down by only 1% support among nonwhite voters. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke had the opposite effect, garnering 3% among all voters but 5% support among nonwhite voters.
A South Carolina Post and Courier poll in June found Buttigieg with 6% support among black likely voters in the state, up from 0% in May.
Basil Smikle, former executive director of the New York state Democratic Party, said that part of Buttigieg’s trouble is that black voters have not had much of a chance to hear from him.
“Black voters have had an extensive history with other candidates in this primary field, Joe Biden most notably because of his tenure in the Senate but also as Obama’s vice president,” Smikle told the Washington Examiner.
Buttigieg faces not only lower name recognition than other candidates, but a mayoral legacy in South Bend that poses a liability for his campaign.
“Normally a person who runs for office as a governor or mayor would rely on their record in that office,” Smikle said. Buttigieg’s problem is that “he’s really not had that kind of record in the African American community in South Bend, Indiana, to be able to use it as a model for the nation as president.”
In his early months in office, Buttigieg demoted South Bend’s first black police chief, Darryl Boykins, in the wake of an FBI investigation into Boykins secretly recording officers’ phone calls. Boykins later sued the city for racial discrimination and in 2013 was granted $50,000.
In June, a white South Bend police officer shot and killed a black man, bringing increased scrutiny to Buttigieg’s record with the black community in his city and a challenge for his otherwise charmed campaign. “You running for president and you expect black people to vote for you?” one protester in South Bend told Buttigieg after the incident.
During the first Democratic primary debates in June, moderator Rachel Maddow probed Buttigieg on the decline in black officers in South Bend during his tenure. “The police force in South Bend is now 6% black in a city that is 26% black,” Maddow said.
Despite those challenges, Buttigieg may have the potential to turn his support with black voters around.
Smikle noted that during the 2008 Democratic primary cycle, polls showed Barack Obama trailing Hillary Clinton in support from black voters nationwide in the months before the Iowa caucuses.
Buttigieg could get around his shaky record and earn some more support from black voters by focusing on issues such as infrastructure, education, and wealth creation, Smikle said, and by going to minority communities to show that he has an understanding of the issues.
“Going to church on Sunday or going to the most famous soul food restaurant, which previous candidates have traditionally done, is not going to be enough,” Smikle said.
On the campaign trail, Buttigieg has stressed his policy proposals to combat discrimination.
“I believe that when it comes to the experience in black America, replacing racist policies with neutral policies won’t get the job done,” the mayor said at a fundraiser in Alexandria, Virginia, last month.
Buttigieg’s message did appeal to Alisa Locke, a 49-year-old private contractor who attended Biden’s event in Charleston on Sunday. She said Buttigieg was “strong on some of his issues” during the debate but that she needs to hear more from him.
“If I had to rank it by candidates who stood out to me that night, it would’ve been Harris, and then coming down to Pete Buttigieg, then Biden,” Locke said.
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