Elections

Mayor Pete’s Convenient Excuse

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg gives a short speech in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. November 18, 2019. (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)
Don’t blame Buttigieg’s weak support from black voters on some sort of latent homophobia.

If Pete Buttigieg doesn’t win the Democratic nomination, it won’t be because African Americans were too homophobic to vote for him.

While the Buttigieg campaign has never explicitly endorsed this theory, it started the ball rolling back in July, when the Berenson Strategy Group, consulting with the Buttigieg campaign, conducted three focus groups with 24 uncommitted African-American voters in South Carolina and wrote up a memo on the results. They concluded, “Being gay was a barrier for these voters, particularly for the men who seemed deeply uncomfortable even discussing it. Their preference is for his sexuality to not be front and center.”

(Which voters want a presidential candidate’s sexuality to be front and center?)

That entire memo seemed tone-deaf and condescending, declaring, “They are going to need to see real demonstrations of broad enthusiasm and likely some endorsements from ‘cool’ black people to help them believe that ‘other people’ don’t have a problem with it and it won’t be a vulnerability in a general election matchup with Trump.”

Recent weeks have brought more signs that while Buttigieg is wowing Iowa caucusgoers and raking in the cash from the Democratic party’s donor class, he is, at least so far, getting nowhere with this demographic in this key early state. Buttigieg received 0 percent among South Carolina African-American likely primary voters in the latest Quinnipiac poll, 0 percent in the October Winthrop poll, and 1 percent among this demographic in the Monmouth poll. The Post and Courier poll showed him trailing billionaire Tom Steyer among African Americans in South Carolina.

This is not complicated: A candidate who cannot win support among African Americans is extremely unlikely to become the nominee, and if by some miracle Buttigieg did win the nomination, a Democratic nominee who couldn’t generate enthusiasm among African-American voters would have a tough time beating Donald Trump. African-American turnout in presidential elections declined 4.7 percent from 2012 to 2016, and while Hillary Clinton prefers to blame a massive secret scheme of voter suppression, it doesn’t seem quite so unthinkable that some black voters were more motivated to reelect the first African-American president than vote for her. (One study calculated 4.4 million Obama voters stayed home in 2016, a third of them black.)

But as much as the Buttigieg campaign might prefer to blame homophobia, it’s easy to find reasons — compelling reasons — why African Americans might not make him their first choice.

  • At the beginning of the year, almost nobody had heard of the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and few Democrats outside Indiana knew anything about him. In the Quinnipiac poll, 60 percent of African Americans said they hadn’t heard enough about Buttigieg to have an opinion about him.
  • In mid-June, just as Buttigieg was starting to get national media attention and shortly before the first debate, a white South Bend police officer shot and killed Eric Logan, a black man who was allegedly armed with a knife. The officer’s body camera wasn’t turned on during the incident. The shooting inflamed racial tensions in the city, and when Buttigieg returned from the campaign trail for a town-hall meeting, attendees shouted, “You are lying!” and “We don’t trust you.” Just as Buttigieg was meeting his national audience, he could not argue that he had improved race relations in his home city.
  • Days later, in the first debate, Rachel Maddow noted that the police force in South Bend is now 6 percent black in a city that is 26 percent black and asked Buttigieg, “Why has that not improved over your two terms as mayor?” Buttigieg answered, “Because I couldn’t get it done.” That answer is blunt and humble but not one that is likely to reassure any African Americans with doubts about him.
  • Buttigieg’s recent outreach to African Americans was painfully awkward. His campaign sought out Democratic figures to sign on in support of his “Douglass Plan for Black America” and then put out a release that left the impression they were endorsing Buttigieg’s presidential bid. Of the 297 names of figures registered to vote in South Carolina, at least 42 percent were white. Then the media determined that the photo of a black woman smiling at a young black boy that had been splashed for weeks across the web page detailing Buttigieg’s plan to combat racial inequality . . . depicted a woman and boy from Kenya. Buttigieg himself didn’t pick out the photo, but it reinforced an existing tone-deaf image.
  • Think of the sorts of Democratic voters who are wowed by Buttigieg so far — gays, the donor class, the meritocratic elites in Manhattan or California — and now compare them with African Americans living in the South Carolina cities of Marion (median income $31,725), Orangeburg ($27,564), or Dillon ($38,344). Do you think Buttigieg’s résumé of Harvard University, Oxford, and McKinsey Consulting is automatically going to impress them? Or do you think they might see his life experience as quite different from theirs? Note that in the Quinnipiac poll, 32 percent of black likely primary voters said “someone who cares about people like you” is the most important quality they seek in a candidate.
  • At 37, Buttigieg is the youngest candidate, and whether or not you concur with President Trump’s assessment that he looks like Alfred E. Neuman, he looks young, and it doesn’t help that he’s roughly five feet, eight inches tall. Buttigieg is seeking the support of voters older than him. In 2016, almost two-thirds of the people who voted in the Democratic presidential primary in South Carolina were over age 45.

It’s not like African Americans in the Palmetto State dislike Buttigieg; only 16 percent had an unfavorable opinion of him in that Quinnipiac poll. But they barely know him, and they have a lot of more familiar options they like better. Only an opportunist with an axe to grind would look at that phenomenon and conclude, “Ah-ha! It must be homophobia!”

But perhaps the “sour grapes” instinct is almost irresistible in politics; when a candidate doesn’t win the support of a particular demographic, the fault must lie with the demographic, not the candidate. Just as Kamala Harris publicly speculated that hostility to African-American women was holding her back (in a Democratic primary!), and Amy Klobuchar contended that women candidates were being held to a tougher standard, candidates are almost inevitably drawn to the reassuring belief that the voters who aren’t supporting them are morally defective in some way. This is how you get American leaders denouncing segments of the electorate as “deplorables” and “human scum” and so on.

Because after all, it couldn’t possibly be the candidate’s fault that some voters don’t like him.

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