February 26, 2020 at 2:01 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Pete’s predicament: Winning over Black voters on Super Tuesday
Pete Buttigieg faces the challenge of winning over Black voters on Super Tuesday. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

With Super Tuesday just a few days away, Pete Buttigieg will be required to make wins among Black and Brown voters to stay in the game as a viable presidential candidate — a Herculean effort given polls showing poor support among voters of color.

After the Democratic primary Saturday in South Carolina, the states that will hold contests on Tuesday are Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont and Virginia.

Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, where the gay candidate had success early on in the Democratic presidential primary, South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states have a significantly higher population of racial minorities.

Kyle Kondik, managing editor for “Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball” at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said the Black vote will be key for Buttigieg, which could prove challenging for him.

“Many of the states voting on Super Tuesday have significant non-white populations, including the two ‘megastates’ that award nearly half of all the delegates that day, California and Texas,” Kondik said. “Buttigieg has thus far not demonstrated much of any ability to win significant support from non-white voters. In order to be a real threat to be the nominee, this cannot continue.”

Despite Buttigieg’s overtures to Black and Brown voters, which include plans for a massive “Douglass Plan” aimed at breathing new life into racial minority neighborhoods and showcasing Black support, such as an endorsement from Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.), polls show Buttigieg struggles in that community.

In South Carolina, where the Black electorate has considerable sway in the Democratic primary, an NBC News/Marist poll on Monday found Buttigieg has support from 9 percent of likely Democratic voters, compared to 27 percent support for Joseph Biden, 23 percent support for Bernie Sanders and 15 percent for Tom Steyer. The poll had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 6 points.

Nationwide, Buttigieg polls worse among Black voters. A Feb. 10 poll from Quinnipiac University found Buttigieg has just 4 percent support among Black voters, compared to 27 percent support for Biden, 22 percent support for Bloomberg, 19 percent support for Sanders, 8 percent for Warren and 4 percent for “someone else.”

In Virginia, his prospects are still not good. A Monmouth poll dated Feb. 18 placed Bloomberg and Sanders on top with 22 percent each, followed by 18 percent for Biden and 11 percent for Buttigieg.

Matt Corridini, a Buttigieg campaign spokesperson, pointed to a Feb. 25 campaign memo for Super Tuesday, emphasizing efforts will consist of minimizing Sanders’s wins and drawing out support.

“We are maximizing delegate accumulation by districts, not states, and this informs our strategy as outlined in the memo,” Corridini said. “As we have already shown, we’re going everywhere and talking to everyone in order to build a broad, diverse coalition.”

Issues with Buttigieg cited by Black community advocates are his handling as South Bend mayor of the shooting last year of a black man by a white police officer, his termination of a black police chief who was investigating racism on the police force and a housing initiative that eliminated low-income homes, many in Black or Brown neighborhoods.

Alvin McEwen, a gay black blogger in South Carolina, said he doesn’t think Buttigieg will be able to win Black voters, but the main issue is his electability, not his record.

“With the other primaries gone by and the media already anointing a front runner, I think our community is mostly concerned with either Sanders or Biden,” McEwen said. “I can honestly tell you that a good many older Black voters — and possibly some younger ones — are wanting a candidate who can best beat Trump. And many of us aren’t seeing Buttigieg as the candidate who can do that.”

But Buttigieg is trying hard to win them over. In the Democratic debate on Tuesday, Buttigieg was at the the forefront of the candidates expressing a commitment to racial justice.

“I’m not here to score points,” Buttigieg said. “I come at this with a great deal of humility because we have had a lot of issues, especially when it comes to racial justice and policing in my own community, and I come to this with some humility because I’m conscious of the fact that there’s seven white people on this stage talking about racial justice.”

Buttigieg continued that none of the candidates on stage have the experience of walking “in a mall and feeling eyes on us regarding us as dangerous without knowing the first thing about us just because of the color of our skin.”

Jennifer Victor, associate professor of political science at George Mason University, identified those remarks as a good moment “in a catfight of a debate.”

“I don’t think he hurt himself at all.” Victor said. “He either stayed neutral or helped himself a bit. He was very cognizant of the African-American audience and may have swayed some voters with his statements on racial justice.”

As for Super Tuesday, Victor said a third place win in South Carolina is all but essential for Buttigieg.

“Assuming the top two vote-getters in Saturday’s contest [in South Carolina] are Biden and Sanders (in some order), the third place finisher will be key,” Victor said. “Whoever finishes third can make a reasonable case for staying in through Super Tuesday, especially Buttigieg because he already has a fair number of delegates. A third place finish would be great for him. But if he finishes lower than that, I think it makes it much harder for him — or anyone else who is fourth or lower — to make a case about staying in.”

Victor added most candidates have enough invested in Super Tuesday that she doesn’t expect anyone to drop out before then, but by this time next week when all the votes are tallied “the field will almost certainly be smaller.”

But in the same debate in which he called for racial justice, Buttigieg made other remarks that raised eyebrows.

Criticizing Bernie Sanders, who praised the Cuban government’s literacy programs despite its authoritarian nature, Buttigieg rejected “nostalgia for the revolutionary politics of the 1960s,” comparing it to Trump policy seeking the social order of the 1950s.

Buttigieg tweeted that debate line out from his campaign account, then deleted it shortly afterward. Although the context was criticism of Sanders’s praise for Cuba, one might take away from those remarks he was referencing the Civil Rights movement, which also took place in the 1960s. A Buttigieg campaign spokesperson subsequently tweeted “the Civil Rights movement wasn’t implied nor referenced.”

Buttigieg’s comments struck a nerve with transgender commentator Katelyn Burns, who wrote at Vox on the candidate’s “attack on ‘revolution politics’ seemed to denounce what made his candidacy possible.”

“But although Buttigieg is a white man, his attack on the time’s politics especially betrays his lack of perspective on a personal level,” Burns writes. “The life he lives now — as a married gay veteran who is a viable candidate for president — would not have been possible without the revolutionary queer politics of the ’60s.”

Kondik wasn’t swayed over the argument those would be seen as denigrating the Civil Rights movement, but said time will tell if Black voters feel the same way.

“I thought Buttigieg’s ’60s remarks represented a reasonable criticism of Sanders,” Kondik said, “Whether they have any impact, I do not know. Even if Sanders was hurt by the debate – maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t – it’s no guarantee that Buttigieg would benefit.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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