Can Mayor Pete’s cash pile make up for his lack of African-American support?

Pete Buttigieg meeting with black supporters in Chicago
Pete Buttigieg meeting with black supporters in Chicago Photo: Pete Buttigieg's Facebook Pat

When the Democratic presidential candidates released their third quarter fundraising numbers, Pete Buttigieg stood out for raising more money than former vice president Joe Biden: $19.1 million to Biden’s $15.3 million. Buttigieg’s numbers didn’t quite compare with Bernie Sanders’ haul of $25.3 million (followed closely by Elizabeth Warren’s $24.6 million) or to his own second quarter record of $24.8 million, but they’re still very impressive.

That’s particularly true since Buttigieg is going through something of a polling slump. Despite solid performances in the presidential debates, the South Bend, IN mayor is languishing in the mid-single digits in polls. Real Clear Politics puts Buttigieg’s polling average at about 5.5 percent. In the first two states to vote, Iowa and New Hampshire, he’s at 10 percent.

But the really bad news for Buttigieg is in a subset of the polling. A recent poll of South Carolina voters found him at zero percent among African-Americans. A national Monmouth poll found him hardly better: one percent for black, Hispanic and Asian voters.

Those results underscore that Buttigieg’s base is really among white, college-educated voters — a group that has been dubbed “the wine track.” But the wine track is not reflective of the Democratic primary electorate. In 2016, black voters made up nearly a quarter of the Democratic primary electorate. That number is expected to grow this time around.

That reality complicates Buttigieg’s efforts to establish himself as a credible alternative to Biden. In recent weeks, Buttigieg has been telling Iowa voters that we need to “re-center our politics” while at the same time making it clear that he thinks Medicare-For-All — which has become a litmus test of sorts for the more liberal candidates — is unlikely to succeed. The other notable opponent of Medicare-For-All is Biden. 

In short, Buttigieg is setting himself up as the reasonable, moderate alternative to Biden should the front-runner stumble. But while Biden has been slipping in the polls, he has one thing that Buttigieg does not: very strong support among African-American voters. In the same South Carolina poll that had Buttigieg getting literally no support from African-Americans, Biden got 46 percent support.

Buttigieg’s problems stem from the sometimes contentious relationship he’s had with the black community in South Bend, compounded by the shooting last June of a black man by a white police officer who had turned his body cam off.  Looking to remedy that image problem, Buttigieg hired a black engagement director — but only two weeks ago. 

In some ways, the early states favor Buttigieg. Iowa is a midwestern state, like Buttigieg’s Indiana, and it is whiter than many other states, as is New Hampshire. Buttigieg is investing heavily in both states in hopes of a breakthrough. But at some point, without making inroads in the African-American community, Buttigieg is going to have a hard time making it to the nomination. And even if he does somehow clinch the party’s nod, he’ll still have to worry about turnout. In a close race, too many black voters sitting out could spell defeat.

The more immediate worry for Buttigieg is that African-American voters are showing their willingness to get behind another candidate: Elizabeth Warren. There has been a dramatic shift in Warren’s favor among black Democrats, which adds to her momentum in the polls. There’s still a lot of time between now and the first votes, and Buttigieg is sitting on a lot of money. But unless his campaign’s dynamic with African-American voters changes soon, Buttigieg may end up as just one more also-ran at the convention.

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