In a surprise, former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg has let it be known he’s quitting the presidential race — undoubtedly a welcome development for those hoping for a consolidation of moderate Democratic voter before Super Tuesday. The announcement came on the heels of a dismal fourth-place finish in South Carolina, following a disappointing third-place finish in Nevada. And there’s just no question what did in Mayor Pete: a chronic inability to appeal to minority and especially African-American voters. In today’s Democratic Party, that just won’t cut it.
The exceptionally pale complexion of Mayor Pete’s base of support was evident from the beginning of the campaign, but its significance was temporarily masked by his success in the two lily-white states that begin the nominating process, Iowa (where he basically tied with Bernie Sanders) and New Hampshire (where he finished a strong second to Sanders). In poll after poll, he registered in the low single digits among minority voters, doing well in the few states where that didn’t matter and poorly in the longer list of states where it did.
Lord knows Buttigieg tried to turn this around. He spent a lot of time and money in South Carolina, where the majority-black primary electorate represented a particularly tough challenge. He released a comprehensive black empowerment agenda he called the Douglass Plan, and also a set of proposals focused on Latino economic opportunity. He also appealed to Latinos by running Spanish-language ads and showing off his own Spanish proficiency. He did, according to entrance polls, manage a 11 percent showing among Latinos in Nevada (far behind Bernie Sanders’s 50 percent), but never could end his horrible slump with black voters. He won somewhere between two and three percent in South Carolina, amid signs (as reported by the New York Times) that he was making almost no progress in breaking out of his white-voter silo:
By the end of the South Carolina campaign, Mr. Buttigieg was trying to introduce himself to black voters at the same time he was making a closing argument to the state’s white voters.
In Greenville on Thursday, he sat for a round table on health inequities with nine black community leaders. There was no audience other than the three dozen members of the news media who attended. A few hours later in Rock Hill, a Charlotte, N.C., suburb, Mr. Buttigieg rallied a crowd of several hundred inside a gymnasium. The audience was almost exclusively white, aside for a group of out-of-state pro-charter school parents backed by conservative organizations.
With a host of Super Tuesday primaries on tap where minority voters were a big factor — and where many delegate-bearing congressional districts were majority-minority — Buttigieg and his campaign apparently decided he didn’t want to go out by demonstrating his narrow band of support across four times zones. And having blown through much of a 2019 fundraising haul of $76 million, Buttigieg didn’t have the dough left to keep beating his head against the wall of demographic realities.
Multiple factors have been cited by observers for Buttigieg’s minority voter problem, including a couple high-profile incidents of alleged police misconduct in South Bend that he did not handle well; his potential lack of electability; his openly gay sexual orientation; and more generally, the upscale “wine track” nature of his persona and message. Being the self-styled candidate of “generational change” at the age of 38 didn’t do a thing for him among the young minority voters who have been steadily moving in Sanders’s direction, while leaving older minority voters cold and acutely aware of his lack of connection to their communities.
In any event, by the time those South Carolina results poured in, Pete Buttigieg was in danger of becoming indelibly branded as the symbol of colorless moderate politics — a man who could speak multiple languages but wasn’t able to communicate with many regular Democrats. It’s no wonder he decided to bail out of this increasingly fraught campaign cycle and reclaim his position as a loyal and influential member of the party preferred by minority voters. Perhaps he will endorse Joe Biden soon and absorb some credibility by osmosis. He could have a cabinet position or ambassadorship in his immediate future, and if he wants to run for president again, he’s got nine presidential election cycles before he’s as old as Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden. That gives him a lot more time to build a reputation among minority voters.