Rising Pete Buttigieg struggles to win over African-Americans
Once a long shot in the Democratic presidential race, Pete Buttigieg has emerged as the frontrunner in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire by appealing to educated white elites looking for an alternative to Joe Biden, the former vice-president.
But the 37-year-old Harvard graduate is struggling to win over a crucial voting block in Democratic politics: African-Americans.
Once the Democratic primary moves beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, where roughly 90 per cent of voters are white, Mr Buttigieg hits a hurdle in the southern states such as South Carolina, where black voters comprise about 60 per cent of the Democratic electorate.
A recent poll in South Carolina found that Mr Biden led with 33 per cent, with Mr Buttigieg far behind on 6 per cent. When it came to black voters, however, Mr Buttigieg was at zero.
When Mr Buttigieg recently held a rally in Rock Hill, South Carolina, a city where two-fifths of the residents are black, few African-Americans came, a recurring problem in the state.
Nikita Jackson, a black city council member who introduced Mr Buttigieg at the event, said he, and some others, needed to show up at African-American community events rather than waiting for black voters to come to rallies after working long days in their jobs. She said that while his team had attended a string of recent community events, Mr Buttigieg was nowhere to be seen.
“It would have been a great look to have him there,” said Ms Jackson, who added that Mr Biden would be more resilient in South Carolina because black voters associate him with former president Barack Obama.
Mr Buttigieg plans to run his first television ads in South Carolina next week, and was due to visit a black church across the border in North Carolina this weekend to bolster his support.
The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a rust belt city of 100,000, rose from obscurity in the Democratic nomination contest with a message of moderate generational change.
“The generational change aspect is incredibly important. We need a bench full of new leaders,” said Maria Robinson, a Massachusetts politician who introduced Mr Buttigieg at a rally in Durham, New Hampshire, last month.
But as Mr Buttigieg has vaulted up the fundraising table — raising $19m in the third quarter, placing him third after his leftwing rivals Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — he has remained in single digits in national polls, trailing far behind Mr Biden.
A focus group conducted for his campaign over the summer in South Carolina found that many African-Americans, and particularly black men, were uncomfortable with him being a gay, married man.
Earlier this month, Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina lawmaker and number three Democrat in the House, said many older African-Americans struggle with the fact that Mr Buttigieg is gay. “A lot of people my age . . . feel that way,” said Mr Clyburn, 79, before adding that younger African-Americans would be more tolerant.
Mr Buttigieg has tried to damp down any negative impact by arguing that his experience as a gay man growing up in a conservative state makes him sensitive to discrimination, a claim that has earned mixed reviews from African-Americans. He also says that conservative voters can overlook it if you focus on their issues.
In Durham, he also made the case that being gay meant he was more than ready to deal with attacks from President Donald Trump if he ends up winning the Democratic nomination.
“Nobody likes to be called names, or bullied. But I’m gay, I grew up in Indiana. I’ll be fine,” he said to loud applause.
As Mr Buttigieg has eclipsed Mr Biden in Iowa and New Hampshire he has also faced attacks from his rivals, just as Ms Warren came under pressure — including from Mr Buttigieg — when she started to edge Mr Biden out of first place in polls over the summer.
While some of the other contenders criticise his lack of experience, he argues that he has the kind of non-Washington background that is needed in America. On this, he was taking a leaf out of the playbook that Mr Trump used in his outsider campaign in the 2016 race.
He also points to his experience as an Afghanistan war veteran to show he understands the gravity of the tough decisions that a president must take about whether to send troops into combat.
In Durham, he revelled at the thought of reminding Mr Trump that while he was “preparing for season seven of Celebrity Apprentice . . . I was preparing for deployment to Afghanistan”.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi