Why Pete Buttigieg’s Lack of Black Support May Limit His 2020 Potential

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has 154 endorsements from current or former black or Hispanic elected officials. Senator Kamala Harris has 93. Senator Bernie Sanders has 91. Senator Cory Booker has 50. Senator Elizabeth Warren has 43.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg has six.

The South Bend, Ind., mayor has surged to first place in some Iowa polls and has built a big-money fund-raising operation that is the strongest in the Democratic presidential field.

But as his campaign has grown exponentially beyond the small band of loyalists who began it in January, Mr. Buttigieg has failed to demonstrate even minimal support among African-Americans and Hispanics, critical voting blocs that will have a much larger say after Iowa and New Hampshire, and their nearly all-white electorates, begin the presidential nominating calendar.

On Wednesday night, debate moderators questioned Mr. Buttigieg’s record on racial issues while rivals including Mr. Booker, of New Jersey, and Ms. Harris, of California, suggested he needed on-the-job training in talking to black audiences.

Mr. Buttigieg’s weakness with voters of color — he registered zero percent among black South Carolina Democrats in a Quinnipiac University poll released Monday — limits his potential in the 2020 campaign. A donor-class favorite who draws capacity crowds across Iowa, Mr. Buttigieg counts as his highest-profile black supporter either the man who lost a 2018 election to be Florida’s attorney general or the former mayor of Kansas City, Mo.

No Democrat in modern times has won the party’s nomination without claiming majorities of black voters, the most crucial voting bloc in South Carolina and in an array of delegate-rich Southern states.

“He needs to get out into the communities and countryside and let people know who he is,” said Sly James, the former Kansas City mayor, who endorsed Mr. Buttigieg in September. “That means some travel to the South, more time and exposure there and finding some key African-American leaders who can open doors for him and endorse him.”

Mr. Buttigieg has so few black elected officials and former elected officials backing him that they could all fit into a single S.U.V. The issue emerged during a meeting he held this summer with Congressional Black Caucus members who pressed him about why he did not have black officials from South Bend vouching for him on the campaign trail.

Of the black elected officials and former elected officials who have endorsed him, only Sean Shaw, a former one-term Florida state representative who lost his statewide race last year, has been to South Carolina on his behalf.

Mr. Buttigieg has far more help from surrogates on the fund-raising circuit.

Since Oct. 1, his campaign has held fund-raisers or donor gatherings with at least 13 separate campaign surrogates, including the actress Mandy Moore and the tech entrepreneur Matt Rogers, who co-founded the Nest home security company and is married to Swati Mylavarapu, the chairwoman of Mr. Buttigieg’s fund-raising apparatus.

Mr. Buttigieg has acknowledged his weakness with voters of color when he’s been asked about it along the campaign trail. He and his supporters have argued for months that he will start doing better among black voters once they learn more about him and his plans.

Win Iowa, this plan goes, and he’ll win attention and perhaps support from black voters that has so far gone to Mr. Biden.

“I welcome the challenge of connecting with black voters in America who don’t yet know me,” Mr. Buttigieg said during Wednesday’s debate. “As mayor of a city that is racially diverse and largely low income, for eight years I have lived and breathed the successes and struggles of a community where far too many people live with the consequences of racial inequity that has built up over centuries but been compounded by policies and decisions from within living memory.”

Mr. Buttigieg took only light jabs from his opponents on issues of race during the debate. Ms. Harris passed on a chance to repeat criticisms of him she made last weekend. Mr. Booker said that he had a full understanding of issues concerning black voters.

“I have a lifetime of experience with black voters,” Mr. Booker said. “I’ve been one since I was 18. Nobody on this stage should need a focus group to hear from African-American voters.”

More attacks on Mr. Buttigieg’s record on race are coming. Our Revolution, a political organization backing Mr. Sanders, is planning a Dec. 7 rally in South Bend that will highlight Mr. Buttigieg’s handling of the June police shooting and feature a black South Bend Common Council member aggrieved that two of her properties were razed by Mr. Buttigieg’s municipal government.

“When you can’t even take care of the needs of black folks in your own city, I don’t think you are in any position to be the president of the United States of America,” Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator who is a national co-chairwoman of the Sanders campaign, said at a Sanders campaign fund-raiser Tuesday in Atlanta.

As his campaign took flight, Mr. Buttigieg was not always as responsive to inquiries from black officials as they would have liked.

Cordelia Lewis-Burks, a Democratic National Committee member from Indianapolis, said that shortly after Mr. Buttigieg announced his exploratory committee in January, she asked him to speak at a dinner celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Indianapolis chapter of the N.A.A.C.P.

Weeks later she had received no response. In April, a Buttigieg campaign staff member called and invited her to his official campaign launch in South Bend.

“I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. I’ve been trying to get the mayor to be the speaker for two months,’” Ms. Lewis-Burks said. Twenty minutes later, she said, she got word that Mr. Buttigieg would indeed speak at the N.A.A.C.P. dinner, which he did in October.

A Buttigieg aide said the campaign was not aware of the invitation until after his formal campaign launch.

Prominent black and Hispanic Democrats say they know few, if any, people of color who are supporting Mr. Buttigieg. Marc Morial, the former New Orleans mayor who is president of the National Urban League, said he knew of no one. Henry R. Muñoz III, a former treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, said he knew of just one Latina donor.

Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, a super PAC, said her organization had conducted focus groups of a few dozen black voters in six cities since August. In straw polls of the focus group participants, Mr. Buttigieg has not received a single vote.

“The missteps that get into the press, the South Carolina thing and the thing with the photograph, those are problematic because they become part of the narrative around him,” Ms. Shropshire said. “They become data points on this ongoing narrative about his inability to attract black voters.”

Even in Iowa, where Mr. Buttigieg opened a nine-point lead over the field in the latest Des Moines Register poll, the enthusiasm for his candidacy is not shared by the state’s small black and Latino community. Paula Martinez, a member of the Iowa Democratic Party’s state central committee and co-chairwoman of the state’s Brown & Black Forum, said she didn’t know of any black or Hispanic Iowans who supported Mr. Buttigieg.

“For African-American voters, familiarity and trust is extremely important because of the tendency and habits of politicians to say one thing and do another,” Mr. Morial said. “Sometimes there’s a reluctance to follow a new face who has no record of delivering.”

Black officials who have endorsed Mr. Buttigieg said they thought he had time in the three months before the Feb. 29 South Carolina primary to build a relationship with African-American voters.

Mr. Shaw, the former Florida lawmaker, said he planned to make more campaign trips to South Carolina for Mr. Buttigieg.

“The African-American community has a very long-term relationship with Joe Biden and it’s going to take some doing to get at that,” Mr. Shaw said. “But there are a lot of candidates who need to be doing better in African-American communities.”

Lamont Robinson, an Illinois state representative, said he talks up Mr. Buttigieg to constituents in Chicago, but he hasn’t come across any other black officials who back him.

“We have to be able to focus in on a comprehensive plan for the African-American community and that’s in the Douglass Plan,” Mr. Robinson said. “Surrogates like myself, we’re working toward getting that plan out to people.”

And Mark Barbee, the first black mayor of Bridgeport, Pa., is, like Mr. Buttigieg, an openly gay millennial mayor. He endorsed Mr. Buttigieg in September and said the 2020 campaign was too unpredictable to write off Mr. Buttigieg’s ability to win over black voters.

“We’re in an age where anything can happen,” said Mr. Barbee, who leads a community of about 4,600 people. “Pete Buttigieg could drop a song with Beyoncé tomorrow and change the game. You just never know!”

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