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Buttigieg’s sexual orientation an ‘uncomfortable’ topic for some black South Carolina voters, report says

Focus groups commissioned by the campaign revealed black voters worried about his sexual orientation and lack of experience in Washington

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg addresses a crowd last month in Galivants Ferry, S.C. (Sean Rayford/Photographer: Sean Rayford/Getty)

A focus group of black voters in South Carolina commissioned by Pete Buttigieg’s campaign found that the candidate’s sexual orientation may be one of the reasons he has struggled to gain support among African Americans there.

Buttigieg, 37, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., who is seeking to be the country’s first gay presidential nominee, has exceeded fundraising and polling expectations in the Democratic primary.

However, he has struggled to make inroads with black voters. Among black voters in South Carolina, he received less than 1 percent support in a Fox News poll released this month, and 0 percent in a Winthrop University poll in late September.

This focus group may help explain the challenges he faces. “Though not a disqualifier, being gay was a barrier for these voters, particularly men and younger women," the report stated, according to a copy posted by the State newspaper, which first reported on the survey. “After reading his bio, they questioned why he had to even bring it up.”

Participants also told researchers they were concerned about Buttigieg’s political inexperience, low name recognition and relative youth. Nearly all of the voters said they were considering voting for former vice president Joe Biden.

The Buttigieg campaign declined to release a copy of the report but confirmed it was authentic. The July analysis was compiled after 90-minute conversations with three focus groups of 24 “uncommitted African American likely primary voters” in Columbia. Most were not familiar with Buttigieg before the survey, which included a brief bio that mentioned he lived with his husband, Chasten, the report said.

“That’s not my thing, but I wouldn’t want to know that,” a woman under 40 said, according to the report. “I just want to know what you can bring to the table. … That was too much information.”

The report said other participants suggested that while “they personally didn’t have a problem” with Buttigieg being gay, they feared Republicans would use it against him in the general election. Others worried it would make it harder for him to interact with foreign leaders.

Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist based in South Carolina who is not affiliated with any campaign, said he wasn’t surprised by the results — but also cautioned that it should not be used to excuse Buttigieg’s lack of support among black voters.

“Older African American voters have traditionally, particularly in the South, been on the conservative side of some aspects of their politics,” Seawright said. “I am not shocked by the results, but I don’t know if they needed focus groups to confirm what we already knew. I think it’s just a matter of changing hearts and minds.”

Buttigieg has acknowledged on the campaign trail he needs to attract more diverse support if he wants to win the Democratic nomination.

His campaign maintains its low poll numbers with black voters is largely a problem of name recognition and pointed to ramped-up efforts the mayor has made in South Carolina in recent months. Mirroring its rapid expansion in other early-voting states, the campaign now has four offices and 34 staffers in South Carolina, about two-thirds of whom are people of color, according to campaign spokeswoman Tess Whittlesey.

“We’re in a lot different place than we were in South Carolina in July,” campaign spokesman Chris Meagher said.

But Buttigieg’s poll numbers in South Carolina have not risen along with his campaign’s presence. A Monmouth University poll released Wednesday showed him at 3 percent support in South Carolina, with 1 percent support among black voters in the state.

In a conversation last week with David Axelrod, a Democratic strategist who was a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, Buttigieg acknowledged that he may have to overcome some resistance among older African American voters as an openly gay candidate.

“It’s there. I think there’s a process going on in the black community in general and the African American churches in particular around this,” Buttigieg told Axelrod at an Institute of Politics event in Chicago.

Buttigieg has also faced criticism from black voters during his tenure as mayor.

In South Bend, some nonwhite and lower-income residents have complained they have not benefited from the city’s progress at the same pace as white and wealthier ones. Early in his first term, Buttigieg demoted a popular black police chief in part of a scandal that threatened to derail his relationship with the African American community. In June, a white South Bend police officer shot a black resident, leading to protests and an emotional town hall where black activists confronted Buttigieg, some shouting that they didn’t trust him.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated Buttigieg is the country’s first openly gay presidential candidate. Fred Karger ran as a Republican in the 2012 presidential primary election.

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