South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg mesmerizes members of the media and many voters with the same profile - progressive, white and college-educated. He has almost convinced people you can go from mayor to president (if you’ve served in the military and if you come across as very smart). While he may do well with that segment of support in mostly white Iowa and New Hampshire, he’s going to have real problems in South Carolina and beyond unless he improves his standing with black voters. (Sen. Bernie Sanders has the same problem.)
CNN reported this month on Buttigieg’s mostly white audiences in South Carolina: “Buttigieg’s two-day swing through South Carolina crystalized that the mayor’s rise from presidential bottom feeder to top tier candidate has been largely powered by white voters.” The report continued, “The lack of African American support is a key issue in South Carolina, a state where black voters made up 61% of the Democratic primary electorate in 2016. But it is also important in the broader Democratic primary, where black voters are a critical constituency for Democrats in states across the country. . . . Polls show Buttigieg is in the top three candidates among white voters but is in the middle of the pack among black voters.”
Buttigieg got a small shot in the arm when he snagged the endorsement of the first black nominee to be Florida’s attorney general, Sean Shaw. Shaw could certainly help introduce Buttigieg and help him make connections in the black community in that state, but to make real progress, Buttigieg will have to do two things.
First, he has to go to where black voters are - black churches, neighborhoods, civic associations, black-owned businesses and historically black colleges and universities. He cannot expect them to find him out on the trail; he needs to go where they are, both as a matter of respect and as a practical proposition.
Second, he has got to offer something big and bold that demonstrates his commitment to issues blacks care about. Buttigieg is rather light on policies in general, but for someone with little credibility among blacks, he must answer the most basic question: What are you going to do for me? At the National Action Network in April, he told the black organization and its leader, the Rev. Al Sharpton: “I believe an agenda for black Americans needs to include five things that all of us care about: homeownership, entrepreneurship, education, health and justice.”
He delivered a short riff on each item. He now has to talk about these things consistently, in black and in white communities. These things have to be part of his stump speech, part of an agenda that remains exceptionally broad. How’s he going to end “redlining” in housing, close the wealth gap and address disproportionately high maternal mortality rates in the black community?
When Buttigieg consistently seeks out black audiences and makes racial issues close to African Americans’ hearts a part of his stump speech (as Sen. Elizabeth Warren has learned to do), then he’s got a shot to make progress.
Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.