What Happened When Pete Buttigieg Toured the South to Meet Black Voters


ROUND O, S.C. — While Pete Buttigieg sat in a semicircle with six entrepreneurs at a black-owned winery, a rooster crowed nearby, its cock-a-doodle-dooing drowning out the South Bend, Ind., mayor’s explanation of how he would help small-business owners of color.

This wasn’t the Mayor Pete phenomenon that’s taken Iowa by storm.

Following stinging criticism about his lack of support from Democrats of color, Mr. Buttigieg this week embarked on a four-day, three-state tour across the South. Rather than play to high school gymnasiums packed with adoring crowds as he’s done in Iowa, where staff members have led crowds in choreographed dance moves, Mr. Buttigieg appeared in austere settings in North Carolina, South Carolina and Alabama that were more typical of an unknown candidate’s first appearances on the presidential campaign trail.

For a candidate who has risen from obscurity to the top-tier of the Democratic field thanks to his ubiquity on television and social media, the campaign swing served as a first overture to black audiences who have received far less attention from his campaign than a largely white cohort of donors and Iowa caucusgoers. The trip was engineered to introduce him to black voters — and perhaps just as importantly, to show him being introduced to black voters.

“We certainly knew that there was an opportunity and a need to mix it up in terms of our style of engagement and our approach,” Mr. Buttigieg said during an interview Tuesday in Okatie, S.C. “When you’re reaching out to voters who don’t yet feel that they know you, and you’re reaching out to parts of the electorate that have often felt taken for granted or overlooked by the regular political process in a lot of ways, it’s important to have that two-way conversation.”

Mr. Buttigieg remains mired in the single digits in South Carolina, where the majority of Democrats are black. The most recent poll of South Carolina Democrats showed former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. with a substantial lead with all voters, followed by Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont in second and third. Mr. Buttigieg was in fourth among all Democratic voters but had the support of less than one percent of the state’s black voters.

The poll found 47 percent of South Carolina Democrats hadn’t heard enough about Mr. Buttigieg to form an opinion, a figure that grew to 60 percent among black voters.

Those at Mr. Buttigieg’s South Carolina and Alabama stops cited various concerns, including the killing of a black man by a white South Bend police officer this year, the resurfacing last week of a 2011 video in which he said low-income minority students lacked proper role models and a debate remark in which the first major gay candidate for president appeared to compare discrimination against people of color with discrimination against L.G.B.T.Q. people.

“If he stops talking about comparing struggles he’ll be O.K.,” said Charles C. Patton, a student at South Carolina State who led Mr. Buttigieg on a tour of the historically black university’s campus on Monday. “That’s just something that’s not hitting right with real people.

On Wednesday morning in Birmingham, Ala., Mr. Buttigieg pitched himself to two dozen community leaders, including Sheila Tyson, a Jefferson County commissioner, who told him she was there “to find out exactly what can you do for black women.”

“I get that this is a matter of show and not tell,” Mr. Buttigieg replied. “Especially for black women who changed the outcome of the Senate election,” referencing the monumental upset by Doug Jones, a Democrat, in a 2017 special election in Alabama.

Ms. Tyson said later that Mr. Buttigieg had avoided her question and that it was unlikely black voters in Alabama would back him. “I really can’t see it,” she said. “Not now.”

The trip provided little evidence Mr. Buttigieg was cleaving black support away from Mr. Biden in South Carolina, who has long relationships in the state that predate his time serving under President Barack Obama. Democrats at Mr. Buttigieg’s events spoke fondly of Mr. Biden, recalling seeing — and receiving hugs from — the former vice president at events going back years hosted by Representative James E. Clyburn, who first took office in 1993.

A lack of a similar personal investment is at the core of Mr. Buttigieg’s struggles in the state. He was late to open offices there — he had just two by early October while Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders had nine each — and didn’t hire a state director until September. He now has four offices in South Carolina, while Mr. Sanders still has nine, Ms. Warren has 11 and Mr. Biden has five.

At the same time, South Carolina’s black voters are skeptical of the sort of plans touted by Mr. Buttigieg when they come from candidates without a significant track record of producing results.

Evelena Moultrie, a 64-year-old school bus driver from Hollywood, S.C., who came to see him at a union-focused stop in North Charleston, said she wasn’t happy to hear Mr. Buttigieg’s remark about black role models, which he subsequently apologized for.

“Right now he has a little stigma following him around,” she said.

Mr. Buttigieg this week has talked openly about his lack of long-term understanding of the struggles African Americans have faced.

“I have to confess that I was slow to realize, I worked for years under the illusion that our schools in my city were integrated,” Mr. Buttigieg said Sunday during an interview with the Rev. William J. Barber II, a prominent civil rights activist in North Carolina.

The trip coincided with the Buttigieg campaign’s first major run of television advertising in South Carolina, $2 million in ads in which Mr. Buttigieg cites scripture and touts an effort to unify “around issues from wages and family leave to gun violence and immigration.” He avoids the contrasts with Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders that characterize his campaign messaging in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The Buttigieg campaign now has more than 40 staff members in South Carolina, including Mr. Clyburn’s grandson, Walter Clyburn Reed, who is its organizer for historically black colleges and universities.

On Monday Mr. Reed arranged for Mr. Buttigieg to meet about 50 South Carolina State University students at the campus bowling alley — in part by luring them with free pizza. Mr. Buttigieg himself bowled twice, first knocking down eight pins and later throwing a strike.

Mr. Buttigieg’s previous events in South Carolina have been well attended, though he has drawn largely white audiences even at stops in majority-black communities. Before this week he’d spent little time in the rural areas that comprise a large part of the state’s political identity.

After a morning tour in which Mr. Buttigieg sampled a glass of muscadine wine, he answered questions about how to create opportunities for high school and college graduates to find good jobs in rural areas.

Matt Bowman, a Navy veteran who started the winery on his family’s farm, spoke about their five-generation history on the land.

Mr. Bowman said he agreed to host Mr. Buttigieg after a campaign official said he was looking to visit a black-owned retail outfit. He said he remained undecided in the presidential race. “Vice President Biden has a lot of history and momentum,” Mr. Bowman said in an interview.

Stanley Campbell, a health care technology executive from Northern Virginia, traveled to South Carolina to attend the gathering. He said Mr. Buttigieg faced a tough road because he was not fluent in issues important to black voters.

“It is very difficult if you are not raised in, let’s say the black community, then expanded to the black church, then expanded to black schools, to gain all of that that might be necessary to make the connection because you don’t even know that you’re not connecting,” Mr. Campbell said.

Mr. Buttigieg used the tour to debut the first black surrogate from South Bend to travel with his campaign — Sharon McBride, a city council member. Mr. Buttigieg introduced her at each of his stops as someone who could help tell the story of his South Bend leadership.

It didn’t take long for Mr. Buttigieg to need defending.

He stopped for a “meet-and-greet” on Monday at the Democratic Party headquarters in Allendale County, where the population is 73 percent black and has a per-capita income that is half the South Carolina average. No presidential candidate had visited the county, the state’s smallest, since John Edwards in 2008, said Willa Jennings, the county’s Democratic chairwoman.

The audience of about 50 people was friendly and appreciative of Mr. Buttigieg’s visit but peppered him with tough questions about his poor standing among voters of color.

“I hear a lot about how you don’t have support from African-Americans,” Ms. Jennings told Mr. Buttigieg. “I just want to know why are they saying that about you?”

“Look, I’m new on the scene. I get that,” Mr. Buttigieg replied. “So, I know, as somebody who’s new on the scene, I’ve got to earn that trust.”

Then, unprompted, Ms. McBride stood up from her seat.

“One of the myths is that he doesn’t have minority support,” she said. “But if you look at the statistics and the math, I believe in your re-election, you got 80 percent of the votes, and of that 80 percent — you have the city of South Bend, 40 percent minority. So, minorities also had to vote to get Mayor Pete elected.”

After the event, Wilda Robinson, the Allendale County school board president, said black voters remained unfamiliar with Mr. Buttigieg. She then recalled Mr. Biden’s many visits to the state, including speeches he gave at Mr. Clyburn’s events.

Mr. Buttigieg, she said, can’t hope to compete with Mr. Biden’s decades of stops in the state in the final three months before South Carolina’s primary, set for Feb. 29.

“Mayor Pete, people are going to listen to him and hear what he has to say,” she said. “And I’m glad that we had an opportunity to make this event possible. I’m just really glad. But statistics are statistics.”


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