Pete Buttigieg, a Democratic presidential candidate and the mayor of a small, majority-white city, came to New York this week to appeal to black voters.
“I believe an agenda for black Americans needs to include five things that all of us care about: homeownership, entrepreneurship, education, health and justice,” the mayor of South Bend, Ind., told the audience at the National Action Network’s conference.
The annual gathering, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, is a key stop for Democratic presidential candidates. Buttigieg also affirmed to Sharpton that as president, he would sign a bill that would start a study of reparations.
Aside from the conference, Buttigieg has recently, like several other candidates, appeared on syndicated radio show The Breakfast Club, which has a majority-black audience, and been interviewed by Ebony magazine.
Since the 2016 election, the Democratic Party has been wrestling with its demographic strategy — to what degree it should invest its resources in winning white, working-class voters who may have swung toward Trump or put those resources elsewhere, like outreach to more reliably Democratic groups (like black voters).
For primary voters, supporting Buttigieg may symbolize an appeal to white, working-class voters, especially in the Midwest. The Indiana Democrat pushes back on the idea that it’s an either-or proposition, emphasizing the need for a message of fairness around issues that affect people of all backgrounds.
“I think if we do that right, it helps get around this false choice that would imply that winning back working-class voters who are white somehow means we ought to walk away from our bedrock commitments on racial and social justice,” he said in an interview with NPR. “Which I think is the exact wrong way to go.”
In fact, many Democrats have pushed back on the idea that there’s a choice involved, at least in terms of messaging if not resources.
“It’s not just about white working class. I’m not saying you stop talking to white working class; I’m saying that we are a diverse party,” said Karine Jean-Pierre, chief public affairs officer at MoveOn, a progressive political action committee. “I don’t think the Democratic Party has been doing enough to talk to another segment of their base, which is African-American voters, and so I think there’s been this push in particularly in the last two years to do that.”
Coming to the National Action Network was a chance for Buttigieg to try to stand out from a large 2020 field with an influential civil rights group, a challenge for any candidate.
Kimberlyn Carter, a brand strategist from Macon, Ga., went into the conference already impressed by Buttigieg.
“I think that he represents a political exceptionality that we haven’t seen ever. I’m saying ever,” she said.
Carter added, with some surprise, that one staunch Democratic voter she knows also is an early Buttigieg fan.
“She thinks his husband is cool! My mom — an 80-year-old Bible-belt African-American woman,” Carter said. “She says, ‘He just gives me so much hope.’ ”
Support for same-sex marriage has tended to be lower among African-Americans than whites, according to the Pew Research Center. However, support in the black community has grown substantially in recent years, reaching 51 percent support in 2017 according to Pew.
Buttigieg could face some hurdles on his record on race issues. For example, a 2015 instance surfaced this week of Buttigieg saying “all lives matter,” a statement often seen as diminishing the Black Lives Matter movement.
Buttigieg made sure to emphasize a different message at the conference, using the phrase “black lives matter” in his speech.
He also addressed the incident when speaking to reporters after his speech.
“What I did not understand at that time was that that phrase just early into mid- especially 2015 was coming to be viewed as a sort of counterslogan to Black Lives Matter,” Buttigieg said. He later added, “Since learning about how that phrase was being used to push back on that activism, I stopped using it in that context.”
In addition, Buttigieg’s economic record in South Bend may give some voters pause. One 2017 report found substantial racial economic gaps in the city that mirror those nationwide — much lower black homeownership rates and annual incomes than there are for whites, for example. In an interview with NPR, Buttigieg said that he hopes to alleviate that via an array of initiatives, like boosting minority entrepreneurship.
On top of that, Buttigieg is still new on the scene and, until recently, has lacked a national profile. Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, thinks that could hurt Buttigieg among African-Americans, who he says tend to be “notoriously pragmatic.”
“Voters that vote very practically — they’re not moved by the latest poll numbers or a fad of the day or the latest hot thing, because you just can’t risk it,” he said. “You can’t afford to jump on the bandwagon because there’s too much at stake. Your voting rights, police brutality in the criminal justice system, all of these things.”
And Buttigieg is one of the latest hot things in the Democratic field — Google searches of him have spiked over the last month, as FiveThirtyEight noted, and he announced a $7 million fundraising haul. His challenge now is to make that more than a short-term bump.
It could mean winning over skeptical voters like Francis Byrd, a financial analyst from Brooklyn. To him, Buttigieg is too inexperienced to be running.
“He’s leveraging his white male privilege. And I understand that he’s an openly gay man, but white openly gay men have privilege, too,” he said. “The point is that it gives him something additional to leverage that many of the other candidates in the race who have announced don’t have.”
Byrd sees a similar sort of privilege in former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who entered the 2020 race after losing a close contest to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
“I think there are candidates who are way too far afield and who haven’t won races, or who haven’t won a statewide race,” he said. “Maybe they need to sort of prove that out in order to be able to gain further confidence.”
But if Buttigieg or O’Rourke or any other candidate whom Byrd isn’t sold on does win the nomination, Byrd said he would vote for them, if begrudgingly.
Like many Democratic voters, regardless of race, he just wants a win next year.