During Tuesday’s primary debate in Iowa, CNN moderator Abby Phillip asked Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, if he’d considered that his failure to gain traction among black voters was more than a matter of them simply not knowing him well enough. “You say you’ve had trouble earning your support of black voters because you’re unknown,” she said. “But you’ve been campaigning for a year now, and polling shows you with next to no black support — support that you’ll need in order to beat Donald Trump. Is it possible that black voters have gotten to know you, and have simply decided to choose another candidate?”
The mayor’s black-voter problem is well known. He’s tracking at about 2 percent with those who lean Democrat nationally, according to a recent Washington Post/Ipsos poll, and black voters comprise an estimated 4.3 percent of his support base in the primary, according to Politico — a lower share than all of his fellow candidates and the Democratic electorate as a whole. This shortfall has been a drag on the 37-year-old’s otherwise remarkably successful campaign, which has seen him surge into the upper tiers of competitors and land in a statistical four-way tie with Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren in the Iowa caucuses and, depending on the pollster, the New Hampshire primary as well.
Buttigieg responded to Phillips with as much optimism and self-regard as could be expected from a candidate polling so poorly with one of the primary’s crucial demographics. But the moderator’s question touched on a nagging dilemma for several of the contenders — namely, that blaming unfamiliarity for one’s bad polling only applies for so long before other explanations become more convincing. It’s to Buttigieg’s discredit, and that of his black surrogates, that this remains one of their go-to rationales a year into the campaign. But it’s also misleading to suggest that the paucity of Buttigieg’s black support is an anomaly requiring explanation. In fact, given the particularities of this primary — and its voters’ outsize focus on electability — the more confounding feature of his rise isn’t how poorly he’s doing with black voters, but how well he’s doing with white ones.
The Post/Ipsos poll’s breakdown of black voter attitudes from last week indicated that Buttigieg’s standing wasn’t exactly aberrant. He’s tracking roughly as well with black voters who lean Democrat as Mike Bloomberg (4 percent), Andrew Yang (3 percent), Tom Steyer (2 percent), and — before he dropped out of the race on Monday — even Cory Booker (4 percent). The ex-mayor is technically polling higher with black Democrats than Amy Klobuchar and Deval Patrick (both still in the race, both clocking in at lower than 0.5 percent). And despite boasting a slightly higher share of Democrat-leaning black voters who would not consider backing him, his favorables and unfavorables remain in the same range as Bloomberg’s and Yang’s, and better overall than Klobuchar’s.
This suggests less an unequivocal rebuke from the black electorate than a level of skepticism commensurate with the mayor’s perceived strengths and weaknesses in an election where these voters want to be confident that their chosen candidate can defeat President Trump. Accordingly, about half of them have already thrown their weight behind Biden, who spent 36 years in the U.S. Senate and served as second-in-command to the enduringly popular first black president, Barack Obama. The 77-year-old has had decades to build trust and relationships with black voters and lawmakers, and to showcase a range of merits to weigh against his innumerable deficiencies. By contrast, Buttigieg was the 30-something mayor of a small city in Indiana who’s never held national or even state-level office, and boasts enough missteps with his black constituents and potential voters that the case for him over the former vice-president is flimsy.
Buttigieg’s campaign fancies itself a contender for the same moderate ideological lane that Biden has staked out. But it’s regularly undermined its potentially appealing contrasts — younger, more lucid — by mirroring the former vice-president’s knack for challenging black voters’ goodwill. In June, the police shooting of a black man in South Bend laid bare Buttigieg’s failure to diversify the city’s police force. In October, he was compelled under public pressure to withdraw from a fundraiser hosted by Steve Patton, the former head of Chicago’s law department who helped then-Mayor Rahm Emmanuel cover up the police shooting of Laquan McDonald. His resurfaced remarks from 2011 that seemed to imply that black children’s struggles in school were attributable to a lack of black role models rankled some potential black supporters — and they’ve said as much. The mayor was exposed in November for touting support for his Douglass Plan for Black America from three black South Carolina lawmakers who didn’t actually support it. And his campaign advertised the same plan using a stock image of random black people in Kenya.
Pair these demerits with the fact that Buttigieg has few substantive relationships with black voters or lawmakers who can vouch for him outside the 100,000-resident municipality of South Bend, and it’s hardly shocking that he’s polling so poorly in a vast field of better-known quantities. The impression that he’s toxic in this regard isn’t aided by constant media coverage around his lack of black support, or the persistence of small but vocal contingents of black protesters and aggrieved constituents interrupting his rallies and local press conferences. But more comprehensive interviews and testimony suggest a more nuanced picture. Buttigieg’s failures as mayor of a city that’s 40 percent black are well documented. He also won reelection there handily against multiple black challengers — albeit in a race with very low turnout — and local residents and fellow officials have praised his initiatives to provide legal help for tenants facing eviction, fund repairs for homes in historically marginalized neighborhoods, and open a small business resource center on the city’s heavily black west side. The picture that emerges isn’t one of a white Democratic mayor dogged by an especially strained relationship with his black constituents, but a white Democratic mayor not unlike many white Democratic mayors: moderately interested in improving black people’s lot, as long as it doesn’t challenge the interests of capital or disquiet white people’s sense of safety and social stability.
That Buttigieg’s unpopularity among black voters in the primary doesn’t square with his indisputable popularity among white caucus-goers in Iowa in particular — and mostly white big-dollar donors nationwide — is a question more reasonably put to his white supporters than his black skeptics. If indeed electability is at a premium for Democrats, as polling indicates, then those unconvinced by the cherubic small-town mayor with no national experience and a platform that’s only marginally distinguishable from Joe Biden’s are probably not the ones behaving unusually. Why such a surprising share of white primary voters have been drawn to Buttigieg is perhaps understandable, if not self-evident — he’s a lucid thinker and talented communicator, albeit unproven, a more transparent opportunist than many, and unnervingly prone to unforced errors. And there are other potential reasons why his support among black voters lags. Buttigieg is gay and black Democrats overall are less likely than white Democrats to accept gay relationships, for example — a testament to the persistence of a conservative black element in a party whose white conservatives have mostly jumped ship for the GOP.
But even that rift belies that the majority of black Democrats are fine with a gay candidate. Far more telling is that Buttigieg’s status as a front-runner is almost totally contingent on the support of white voters whose enthusiasm remains hard to satisfactorily defend, and more than a little counterintuitive. These white Democrats have singlehandedly catapulted a political unknown into the margins of national contention. Black Democrats are treating him like a small-town mayor with a dubious electability argument. Maybe it’s the former cohort whose reasoning begs further interrogation. Maybe “Why does Mayor Pete struggle with black voters?” isn’t the right question to ask here.