Yet Buttigieg’s campaign has been stamped with the narrative “struggles with black voters.”
Last month, data from an internal focus group of black South Carolina voters conducted in July for the Buttigieg campaign became public. Some of the participants said Buttigieg’s sexuality was an issue for them, or voiced concern that it would make him less electable.
Questions followed from supporters, critics and others interested in the race: Did the Buttigieg campaign leak that memo? Was it trying to excuse Buttigieg’s poor performance with black voters by blaming homophobia? Buttigieg and his campaign didn’t immediately address the issue, leading some to assume the data’s publication was intended to help him — at the expense of black voters.
But a campaign aide this week said that the mayor’s challenge in connecting with black voters isn’t mainly linked to homophobia, despite a report that said some black voters from South Carolina took issue with the gay candidate’s sexuality. The campaign is now acknowledging that Buttigieg’s minute support with black voters is rooted in other issues.
“To be clear: our campaign doesn’t buy into the homophobia narrative floating out there. AT ALL,” Nina Smith, Buttigieg’s traveling press secretary tweeted Monday. “We know our biggest barrier to Black support is that Pete is new face to Black America.”
Smith told the Fix that she believes Buttigieg’s low support among black voters is because many are still getting to know the candidate. “I think it’s mostly because he’s new and people aren’t familiar with his record,” she said. “That’s why we keep trucking, keep pushing, and we won’t stop.”
After the July memo leaked out a few weeks ago, it explicitly concluded that homophobia was one of the main reasons that the mayor wasn’t doing well in South Carolina, where a significant percentage of Democratic primary voters are black.
“Being gay was a barrier for these voters, particularly for the men who seemed deeply uncomfortable even discussing it,” according to the memo by the Benenson Strategy Group on the focus group it conducted.
House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) referred to that theory this past Sunday, saying that “there’s no question” that Buttigieg’s identity as a gay man was an issue for older black voters in the Bible Belt state. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you otherwise, because I think everybody knows that’s an issue,” Clyburn said on CNN. “But I’m saying it’s an issue not the way it used to be. My own grandson is very much for him. He is a paid staffer working on the campaign.”
The criticism took aim at older black voters in South Carolina, accusing them of homophobia.
“Sad to hear that older black voters in South Carolina have issue with @PeteButtigieg living with his husband,” tweeted pop star Boy George. “People don’t chose their race or their sexuality. God is constantly trying to teach us compassion and we won’t listen!”
But black Americans — including a presidential candidate — say the idea that black voters are homophobic, and significantly more so than white voters, is rooted in racism, said author and political commentator Keith Boykin, a co-founder of the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization focused on the intersection of racism and homophobia.
“Yes, homophobia is an issue in black communities, but it’s also an issue in white communities,” he told the Fix. “There’s no evidence that homophobia is any worse in black communities than in white communities.
“In fact, my research over the past 25 years has found that blacks are just as supportive, if not more supportive, of LGBT protections than whites,” Boykin added. “The only LGBT issue where blacks tend to be more conservative than whites is with marriage. My explanation for this is that black voters tend to be politically progressive but socially conservative.”
According to the latest Pew Research Center data, 62 percent of white adults support same-sex marriage. The number is 51 percent for black adults.
Unfamiliarity with Buttigieg was one of the top reasons he isn’t winning more black support, according to the focus group. But so was pragmatism, a motivator many black voters in South Carolina are using to guide their support in 2020 as they look for a candidate who can defeat President Trump. And most of these black voters believe that former vice president Joe Biden has a better shot at defeating Trump than Buttigieg.
Also, concerns about the mayor’s handling of the relationship between police and black residents in South Bend linger, said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, an organization focused on increasing black voter turnout. I wrote in July about how interest in the issue increased after a white South Bend police officer fatally shot a black man.
“Both our research and our live conversations with Black voters says that his lack of support is the result of Black voters not knowing who he is or very much about him at all,” Shropshire told the Fix. “Their first introduction to him on the national stage was accompanied by a police violence scandal in his hometown and that’s not the issue you want defining you with Black voters.”
But what could make gaining traction with black voters even more difficult is the belief that the campaign did not respond quickly enough to some black voters’ concern that they were being blamed for Buttigieg’s campaign woes. Smith’s tweets saying that the campaign doesn’t believe homophobia is behind black voters’ lack of support for the mayor came more than two weeks after the report went public.
“For the @PeteButtigieg campaign to allow this nonsense to float around about homophobic black voters — and then to double down on it knowing better is like tryna drain the ocean with a spoon,” Alicia Garza, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, tweeted Monday.
“There are clear answers to why Black voters don’t back your campaign, and homophobia ain’t it,” added Garza, who is queer.
Buttigieg’s campaign appears to be picking up traction in other areas. The most recent Quinnipiac poll has him in a four-way tie in the Iowa Democratic Presidential Caucus. Warren has 20 percent support among likely Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa. Buttigieg has 19 percent. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and former vice president Biden have 17 percent and 15 percent, respectively.
But as influential as Iowa is, its caucuses aren’t known for their diversity or the perspectives of large groups of Americans of color. Ultimately, the person who prevails in the Democratic primary will likely need the support of black voters to win the nomination.