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 African American community in that state, but to make real progress, Buttigieg will have to do two things.
First, he has to go to where African American voters are — African American churches, neighborhoods, civic associations, African American-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 African Americans care about. Buttigieg is rather light on policies in general, but for someone with little credibility among African Americans 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 African American 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. On criminal justice, for example, he offered: “So a national agenda on criminal-justice reform means not only enhancing policing in a more racially just way, not only challenging discriminatory practices in existing laws but addressing the harm done in the decades-long war on drugs.” He continued, “It means reversing and recognizing the harms of mass incarceration, rolling back the private prison industry, that has a financial stake in incarcerating millions of Americans — largely Americans of color.” He also pledged to abolish the death penalty.
He now has to talk about these things consistently, in African American and in white communities. These things have to be part of his stump speech, part of an agenda that remains exceptionally broad (“Freedom, Security and Democracy”). How’s he going to end “redlining” in housing, close the wealth gap and address disproportionately high maternal mortality rates in the African American community?
In sum, when Buttigieg consistently seeks out African American audiences and makes racial issues close to African Americans’ hearts a part of his stump speech (as Sen. Elizabeth Warren as learned to do), then he’s got a shot to make progress with this critical segment of the electorate. He won’t help himself with these voters by going on Fox News, however, whose audience is 94 percent white.