Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg participates in the Black Economic Alliance Forum on Saturday in Charleston, S.C. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

You can’t win the Democratic nomination without African American support. So, when I interviewed South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg on May 22 at the 92nd Street Y in New York, I asked him about his nonexistent support among African Americans in South Carolina. A poll released a few days earlier showed Buttigieg garnering zero percent of black support in the Palmetto State, where black voters make up 61 percent of the electorate.

“So this is vital, first of all, in order for us to win, but also in order for us to deserve to win, that we have a coalition and supporters that are as diverse as our party,” Buttigieg told me. “What we’re finding with a lot of these early state voters is the challenge is not that they’ve sized me up and they don’t like me. It’s that they don’t know me.” And then he got to the nub of the matter.

“A lot of it is engagement, not just in the public events, but when the cameras are off, having small, quiet engagements with activists, with faith leaders, with people connected to HBCUs, with anybody we can find to not only, obviously, make sure they understand the message of the campaign, which people I believe are responding to very well,” Buttigieg continued, “but also to invite them to shape the campaign in many ways, to ask them to help us think about the right vocabularies, the right ways that we can be a voice for them in this process. And I’m very confident that as we do that, we will continue to see our support grow.”

The latest poll from the Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C., shows his approach is working.

Within one month, Buttigieg has already jumped from zero percent support among African Americans to 6 percent in the new Post and Courier poll. “Buttigieg sits between the race’s two main African American candidates — [Kamala D.] Harris, who has 11 percent of the black vote, and [Cory] Booker, who has 3 percent,” the Post and Courier reported in its story about the poll.

Can’t say that I’m surprised. If you listen carefully to Buttigieg, he has a message that African Americans will implicitly pick up on. For instance, in that Fox News town hall last month, he talked about the high rates of death among black women surrounding childbirth without being asked a specific question about it. During an interview with the Breakfast Club in March, Buttigieg had a ready answer when Charlamagne tha God asked him about his agenda for black America. “An agenda for black America needs to focus on black entrepreneurship, black homeownership,” he responded. “We need to focus on public education. … We need to talk about health. … And we got to talk about criminal justice. All of those things.” What makes that answer impressive to me is that typical politicians lead with criminal justice reform, assuming they come back to homeownership and entrepreneurship at all.

By putting those two front and center, Buttigieg is signaling to black voters that he sees that their hopes and aspirations are just like those of the forgotten voters (read: white working class) so many folks are focused on. And all that was before he released his Douglass Plan for Black America, which folds African Americans into his overall campaign message on freedom, security and democracy.

The new Post and Courier poll also shows that overall support for Buttigieg ticked up 3 percentage points since May to 11 percent. As a result, he now sits third in the South Carolina contest behind former vice president Joe Biden (37 percent) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) (17 percent). So, let it be clear: Buttigieg’s improved standing just isn’t possible without an uptick in support from African Americans. And his growth in South Carolina bodes well for him in the black voter-rich Southern states that will make up the Super Tuesday primaries just three days after the Palmetto State goes to the polls.

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