Buttigieg Sows Can-He-Win Doubts Even Where He’s Holding a Lead


(Bloomberg) -- Pete Buttigieg’s struggle to win over black voters is threatening to cut into his support in Iowa, where he holds a sizable lead and voters prize their reputation for picking presidents.

Voters in Iowa, an overwhelmingly white state where the ritual of caucuses every four years opens the presidential election season, are getting worried that if they pick the young mayor of South Bend, Indiana, he’ll falter in states where non-white voters hold more sway.

The worries don’t seem to portend a collapse for Buttigieg’s Iowa campaign yet, but he is confronting those questions -- sometimes even protests -- more frequently on the trail.

“I’m feeling very pragmatic,” said Sue Dvorsky, the former chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party who backed Senator Kamala Harris of California and is now undecided. “We’re in the middle of an impeachment. This is throwing into stark relief what is at stake here.”

At a December event in Coralville, a liberal city near the University of Iowa, 2,000 people showed up, making it one of the biggest rallies Iowa had seen this political cycle. But protesters held sighs that read: “0% support w/ black voters in S.C,” the fourth state to vote where blacks make up the majority of Democratic primary voters, and “We need more than Pete. Signed, your fellow Iowans.”

Three protesters later wrote about their concerns with Buttigieg’s policies and candidacy in a guest opinion column in the Iowa City Press-Citizen. They focused on his lack of appeal and a series of missteps in his attempts to reach out to African Americans.

His campaign has apologized for using a stock photo of an African woman in advertising the Douglass Plan, Buttigieg’s plan for black Americans. Black leaders also criticized the campaign for seeming to assume that their endorsement of the specific policy was being conflated with an endorsement of the candidate.

“Out of the 435-plus presidential endorsements black elected officials have made this cycle, Buttigieg has six,” the protesters wrote. “For many, Pete is not a survivable or an electable candidate.”

In November in Iowa, a white voter asked Buttigieg about a highly critical article in The Root, a magazine geared to African Americans. The article centered on comments Buttigieg made while running for mayor in 2011 about education and black students lacking role models.

He said, “Kids need to see evidence that education is going to work for them. There are a lot of kids, especially, the lower-income minority neighborhoods, who literally just haven’t seen it work. There isn’t somebody they know personally who testifies to the value of education.”

Later, he said the comment “does not reflect the totality of my understanding then, and certainly now about the obstacles that students of color face in our system today.”

“This is not just a lie of omission, it is a dangerous precedent,” the author, Michael Harriot, wrote. “This is why institutional inequality persists. Not because of white hoods and racial slurs. It is because this insidious double-talk erases the problem by camouflaging it.”

Buttigieg called Harriot after the piece ran and the two talked at length, and Harriot thanked Buttigieg in a following article.

The Buttigieg campaign said they are continuing to work to expand the candidate’s support, pointing out that the campaign’s Iowa operation began with two people.

“As Pete continues to lay out his bold vision to address our country’s challenges in a way that unites the American people –– we’re going to continue to draw people into this movement and build a bigger coalition,” Brendan McPhillips, Buttigieg’s Iowa state director, said in a statement.

The Buttigieg campaign also pointed to smaller state polls that showed his popularity among non-white voters in Iowa about even with the other top candidates.

But as Iowans fight back criticism that their state is not diverse enough to vote first, there’s anxiety among white voters in the state that Buttigieg’s candidacy could founder after Iowa and New Hampshire, two states that are overwhelmingly white and where he has risen to the top tier in polls. Nevada, with a heavy Latino population comes next, followed by South Carolina. Then comes Super Tuesday, when 14 states, including diverse California and Texas, vote.

That is particularly troubling for Iowa voters who pride themselves on their ability to narrow a presidential field and select a future national leader. The last four Democrats who won the Iowa caucuses went on to secure the party’s nomination.

Buttigieg’s meteoric rise to the top spot in recent Iowa polls imperils that track record. While he leads with 22.5% support, according to Real Clear Politics average of Iowa polls, he is polling at less than 1% among black voters in South Carolina. The same problem could bedevil Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who are both in the top tier in Iowa and New Hampshire. Joe Biden, the front-runner nationally who trails in Iowa, has double-digit support from black voters.

Concerns about race are particularly heightened in Iowa this year because of criticism over Iowa’s racial makeup: 90.7% of the state’s population is white. Candidate Julian Castro, President Barack Obama’s housing secretary, has been highly critical of the order of the nominating process, calling on the Democratic Party to change it.

“Part of the reason for this is that I don’t believe the two states that start the process — Iowa and New Hampshire — are reflective of the diversity of the country, or of our party,” Castro said at a town hall in Iowa.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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