Last month during a visit to Claflin University in South Carolina, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, conceded he was concerned that mostly white people attend his rallies.
“In order not just to win, in order to be deserving to win, I’ve got to be speaking to everybody,” he said during an interview with political commentator Angela Rye.
So when the event ended, one of Buttigieg’s most prominent black supporters canvassed the room.
Rep. Anthony Brown of Maryland, the only member of the Congressional Black Caucus to endorse Buttigieg, told USA TODAY that some in the audience said they liked that Buttigieg leaned into talking about community policing and challenges across America, including those in his hometown.
“The response is ‘he’s real, he listens,’” Brown said. “There’s a real appreciation that he leans into it, shares his experience as a mayor, but a vision that is inclusive of everybody.”
Buttigieg over the past year has risen from an ambitious small-city mayor to a top tier Democratic candidate in what was once the largest and most diverse ever presidential field. Despite his popularity in several early states, and even nationwide, he has struggled to make inroads with voters of color.
Buttigieg has turned to a handful of black surrogates to help garner support with African American voters ahead of Saturday’s South Carolina primary – a key contest to gauge black voter support – and in several Super Tuesday states. The pressure is especially high to win over voters of color following Buttigieg’s distant third place in the Nevada caucus, the most diverse contest yet where 17% of Democrats who participated are Latino.
But it’s still unclear whether those surrogates will be enough to gain the broad support Buttigieg will need to propel him into the Democratic nomination.
Buttigieg has “got a lot of ground to make up in a short period of time,” said Bruce Ransom, chairman of policy studies at the Strom Thurmond Institute at Clemson University.”He’s in single digits with African Americans. (Other candidates) are in double digits around. He’s not there yet.”
‘Meet voters where they are’
Black voters comprise nearly 60% of South Carolina’s Democratic electorate, making the state a crucial test of candidates’ ability to energize African Americans in other primaries and the general election.
Brown has campaigned for Buttigieg in several early voting states, including Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina. He has stopped by local barbershops, churches and visited Claflin University, a historically black college, to campaign for Buttigieg.
“First of all, you got to meet voters where they are,” Brown said.
Brown said he talks about Buttigieg’s Douglass Plan when he’s campaigning. The plan, named after the abolitionist Frederick Douglass and labeled a “comprehensive investment in the empowerment of Black America,” calls for new steps to diversify the teaching profession, dedicating more resources to HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions, and doubling funding for federal grants for states that commit to criminal justice reform.
But the rollout of the Douglass Plan was met with criticism from some black leaders. A stock image of a black woman and a young boy was used, but it was found out later the woman was from Kenya.Buttigieg also was criticized for sending out a letter reportedly signed by 400 black leaders in South Carolina supporting the Douglass Plan, but several said their support for the plan was misconstrued as an endorsement for the former South Bend mayor.
Johnnie Cordero, chair of the state party’s Black Caucus, was initially listed as a signer of the letter. But his name was later taken off after he said he did not endorse the plan.
“It’s presumptuous to think you can come up with a plan for black America without hearing from black folk,” Cordero told the Intercept at the time. “There’s nothing in there that said black folk had anything to do with the drafting of that plan.”
Cordero has since endorsed billionaire activist Tom Steyer.
For most of the campaign, Buttigieg has stayed in single-digit support with black Democratic voters. According to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal national poll released in February, a combined 28% of black voters said they are comfortable or enthusiastic for Buttigieg’s candidacy, while 41% have reservations or are uncomfortable. Comparatively, a combined 69% of black voters said they are comfortable or enthusiastic for former Vice President Joe Biden. Biden also holds a significant lead in the latest South Carolina primary polls.
But Quentin Hart, who made history as the first African American mayor of Waterloo, Iowa, is looking to build enthusiasm for Buttigieg, whom he met at a mayoral conference in Las Vegas several years ago.
One day before Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, Hart recalled to a room of nearly 2,000 mostly white attendees the first time he met Buttigieg.
Hart said the two bonded at the Las Vegas mayoral conference during a 30-minute discussion of “how we can empower African Americans in our communities, Latinos in our communities” in one of their first-ever conversations.
Hart told the Des Moines crowd he wasn’t introducing just another mayor, he was introducing a “person that I call a friend.”
“We have a lot of people … that are frustrated that politics and resources stay at the top and don’t reach 95% of us that are below the top 5%,” Hart said at a rally in the south side of Des Moines, which was followed by a roar of cheers. He went on to tout Buttigieg’s platform to fight back against systemic racism, the Douglass Plan.
“I think it takes the mayor’s perspective to make sure that we don’t forget about everyday people,” he later said.
Hart is one of only two black mayors in Iowa, which has more than 900 municipalities. And at that January rally, held at Lincoln High School in the south side of Des Moines – an area more diverse than most of Iowa – Hart was one of just a handful of non-white supporters in attendance.
Since then, Hart has continued to stump for Buttigieg in South Carolina.
Less ‘political baggage’
Darrell Hagans, a black voter who attended the Des Moines rally, said he planned to caucus for the former South Bend mayor. Originally from North Carolina, Hagans moved to Des Moines in 2017, and said he was convinced by several Buttigieg volunteers at a bar the night before to come to the rally and support him.
“I think one thing that stands out to me is that he’s less political than all the other ones,” Hagans said, adding that Buttigieg has a lot less “political baggage.”
“He seems to be very realistic as well, like an everyday person,” he continued.
Prior to supporting Buttigeig, Hagans said he considered Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. He noted that with Biden, “everyone knows the name” and highlighted his work as vice president to Barack Obama, the first African American president.
Hagans, who works for a software company called ESO, also said he has heard the concerns about Buttigieg’s low standing with voters of color, and said that was another reason he attended the rally: so he could “learn a little more.”
Pointing to his shirt that read “I do what the data tells me to do,” Hagans laughed, saying that’s “why I’m here right now, gathering data.”
South Carolina state Rep. JA Moore was the first African American state legislator to endorse Buttigieg, something he said was “splashy and surprising” to his colleagues after he previously endorsed Sen. Kamala Harris, who dropped out of the presidential race in December.
During an interview with USA TODAY, Moore said he had been undecided until he endorsed Buttigieg. He said he believes “what we need in this country right now is new generational leadership.”
Moore hopes his endorsement “allows people to fully vet all the candidates,” and to swat away the idea that “there’s an inevitable candidate that’s going to, no matter what, resonate with black folks, no matter what their record previously was, (just) because that person was the former vice president for the first African American to be elected.”
Moore said he was recently stopped by a local pastor in Walmart and the pastor asked him to help him understand “your endorsement of Pete.”
“‘Help me get it because I know you as a human being, as a man, and if you’re doing it, it’s for the right reasons. Help me see it,’ ” Moore recalled the pastor saying.
Endorsements aren’t always a dealmaker for voters, said Ransom, the political science professor. They can be beneficial, he said, when undecided voters see someone they trust also endorse a candidate.
“They’re looking for cues that will give them some sense that they’re making the right decision,” he continued.
But some voters want to see Buttigieg himself in their communities, not just surrogates.
Hagans noted that he would like to see Buttigieg be “more proactive” in reaching out to communities of color.
“I haven’t seen this, and maybe this has happened, but if he actually went out into a community of color just to talk about things, whether it’s just sitting in a barber shop and maybe getting his haircut by someone and just talking shop, as we like to say,” Hagans said.
“I think that would help tremendously, even if it makes him feel uncomfortable,” he continued. “I don’t know, he may feel uncomfortable, he may not.”
Daja Prince, 26, who attended a Buttigieg rally in Arlington, Virginia, Sunday said she is still undecided, and is checking out Buttigieg, Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. She said she has only heard negative things about Buttigieg’s outreach to voters of color but wanted to see what he was like for herself.
One of the first things Prince noticed Sunday was the lack of people of color at Buttigieg’s event. Prince said her cousin, who attend the rally with her, joked it was “not hard to spot me, right?”
“You know, I will take that (lack of diversity) into account,” Prince said.
One thing Prince doesn’t want to see from candidates is pandering because it feels “like that’s just invalidating my feelings as a human.” She noted she wasn’t a fan of Buttigieg talking about reparations in regards to the black community, and questioned his authenticity about it.
“Who’s telling you this? Are you getting the information from somewhere real?” she questioned. “Or are you getting it from one of those, like, study companies that study people?”
The big thing Buttigieg can do, she noted, was to just talk to voters rather than relying on others for information.
“Just be yourself, and find out what the people are interested in, and I feel like that’s what he needs to do,” she said.
Buttigieg’s strong finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire – two states that are mostly white – raised questions about whether he could continue that momentum to more diverse states. He had a lackluster showing in the Nevada caucus, which Sanders overwhelmingly won. Nevada’s population is close to 30% Latino and around 9% African American. Buttigieg placed a distant third behind Biden there.
But the former mayor’s campaign advisers have said they believe that once voters of color see that Buttigieg can win, they will begin to support him.
Deputy campaign manager Hari Sevugan said at a Bloomberg News roundtableearlier this month that voters, particularly voters of color, are “looking for someone who can win.”
“In order to show that you can win, you have to win,” he said, adding that “once we do well” in Iowa and New Hampshire it will prove they have a strong coalition going forward. “That’s a powerful signal across the country, including to communities of color, that this is the guy that can beat Donald Trump.”
But Ransom said he doesn’t think Buttigieg’s wins have changed black voters’ minds. He noted that although Buttigieg has done more to reach out to voters of color, he’s still in single digits with African American voters.
He also pointed to several of Buttigieg’s missteps as a complicating factor. Ransom said Buttigieg’s handling of a shooting death by police of a black South Bend man last summer is still in voters’ mind.
One moment in particular, Ransom said, that stands out to voters was a tense exchange between a black woman from South Bend and Buttigieg in the aftermath of the shooting. The woman said: “You’re running for president and you want black people to vote for you? That’s not going to happen.”
Buttigieg replied: “Ma’am, I’m not asking for your vote.”
“His candidacy and trying to appeal to black voters, that situation in South Bend is not helpful and people are going to remember that,” Ransom said.