During his tour of South Carolina last week, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg held a town hall at North Charleston High School, where the student body is 83 percent black in a city that is 47 percent black. According to a Politico reporter who was on the scene, “very few people of color” showed up in the sizable crowd. At a separate event in Orangeburg, where 76 percent of the population is black but 76 percent of Buttigieg’s audience was not, the candidate acknowledged the obvious.
“I need help,” he said, just as in North Charleston when he implored attendees to “find people who perhaps do not look like you and make sure that they are aware of this message and they are communicating to us how this campaign can best speak to them.”
The list of Democratic candidates who need to do a better job reaching black voters, who will play a major role in determining the presidential nominee once the opening contests in New Hampshire and Iowa have concluded, is pretty long. It includes, well, just about all of the candidates except for Joe Biden, whose dominant polling lead rests on an enviable coalition of African Americans and whites without college degrees.
But the disparity in support is particularly acute for Buttigieg.
In a new poll of South Carolina Democratic voters conducted by the Post and Courier, Buttigieg grabs 8 percent of the vote, tied with Elizabeth Warren for fourth place. Kamala Harris, meanwhile, earns 10 percent and Bernie Sanders 15 percent, while Biden leads overall with 46 percent.
Buttigieg’s support, though, was at 18 percent among white voters—and zero among black voters.
You cannot win a Democratic presidential primary if you do poorly among black voters, and the prevailing mathematical consensus holds that “zero” is a poor polling number. A South Carolina Democratic primary trouncing, regardless of how well a candidate did in Iowa or New Hampshire, is often the prelude to a permanent delegate hole, as it was for Hillary Clinton in 2008 and Bernie Sanders in 2016. Super Tuesday arrives just three days after next year’s South Carolina primary, and its top prizes will include California, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Alabama. Someone will find him or herself with a nice little delegate lead following Super Tuesday, and it’s probably going to be the candidate who earns significantly better than zero-percent support among nonwhite voters.
Buttigieg says, correctly, that he needs to put in far more time earning the “trust” of South Carolina voters (though this is not just a South Carolina problem for him). He also says that he starts from an inherently weaker position than Biden, Harris, or Cory Booker.
“If I’m a black voter, I am going to have more trust automatically with a candidate who is a candidate of color, and some candidates, I’m going to feel like I know because I’ve observed them over 10, 20 or 30 years,” he said in South Carolina, according to CNN. “To have somebody who comes on the scene who is not a candidate of color and who has also not been a national figure for years, it means we’ve got to do in a matter of months, that same kind of trust building and relationship building work.”
Indeed, it will take a little more work than lunching with Al Sharpton.