Pete Buttigieg has been among the biggest surprises of the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign. Despite entering the race with little name recognition, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., has surged to the top of polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, and he has moved into the top tier of the presidential field alongside former vice president Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.).

But Buttigieg’s campaign has a major issue that recent headlines have accentuated, even as he rises by other measures: He has not been able to gain much traction at all with black voters, and in his efforts to rectify that, his campaign has stumbled in ways that might exacerbate the situation.

Buttigieg is not the only presidential candidate to struggle to gain significant black support. But his struggles to connect with black voters have become one of the dominant narratives of his campaign.

Where Buttigieg stands overall and with black voters

Buttigieg has crept up in national polls, closing in on the three candidates who have been considered top-tier throughout most of the race. According to a Washington Post polling average of national polls since mid-November, Buttigieg is in fourth place with 10 percent, behind Biden (27), Sanders (18) and Warren (16).

But it is his rise in Iowa, the nation’s first state to vote in the 2020 process, that is garnering him so much attention. In the latest high-quality poll we have, the CNN-Des Moines Register-Mediacom Iowa caucuses poll, Buttigieg received 25 percent of the support of likely Democratic caucusgoers, topping Warren at 16 percent and Biden and Sanders at 15 percent apiece. In The Post’s polling average, he is tied for the lead with Elizabeth Warren at 19 percent.

The mayor receives similar support to Biden and Sanders in New Hampshire in the most recent WBUR poll, conducted earlier this month.

But he has yet to rise above the low single digits in national polls of black Democratic voters, one of the most influential demographic groups in the Democratic Party. And in South Carolina, the first voting state with a large population of African Americans, he stands at 4 percent in The Post’s polling average, with individual polls showing even less support among black voters.

The initial struggles to connect

The Post’s Robert Samuels took a deep look at Buttigieg’s efforts to understand African Americans, starting in college. Here’s the key takeaway from that:

As a white man with a privileged background who has fumbled relationships with minorities as mayor of South Bend, Ind., the 37-year-old Buttigieg has long been on a quest to grasp the African American experience — and his relationship to it. The journey began even before running for office, as a college student, an intern, a young adult trying to make sense of his heritage and his sexual orientation.
Friends and colleagues describe him as a man still forming a sensibility about African American issues and culture, a work-in-progress.

Buttigieg began attracting national attention after running to be the chair of the Democratic National Committee in 2017, but the small-city mayor with low name I.D. was still relatively unknown with black voters at the time he launched his presidential bid. He was up against candidates with longer relationships with the black community, much more experience on the national stage and several who themselves were black.

For many black voters, backing a candidate who they felt could go eye-to-eye with President Trump — who most black Americans believe is racist — was of high priority when determining who they’d select to compete against him in the 2020 general election. Buttigieg, an inspiring figure to many gay Americans and Midwestern voters longing for decency and order to return to the Oval Office, had no track record of aggressively combating the racism that so many black voters regularly say needs to be addressed in this current political era.

Let’s look at some of the reasons black voters have not gotten behind Buttigieg at this stage.

Trying to improve his standing, with a series of stumbles

Questions about whether Buttigieg could attract significant support from black voters were always present, but that was true for most Democratic candidates not named Biden. Black voters are perhaps the most important bloc to the party. They are known for practicality in their voting choices — see the 2008 Democratic nomination, when Barack Obama only solidified his support with them after he proved he could win in Iowa.

Right after Biden entered the race, Buttigieg was at 5 percent with registered Democrats, according to a May Quinnipiac University poll, but he was only polling at 2 percent with people of color.

Buttigieg’s unique struggles with black voters came into focus over the summer: After a police shooting incident in his hometown, his handling of racial issues went under the microscope.

The South Bend police shooting

Buttigieg temporarily suspended his presidential campaign in June after the shooting death of a black man by a South Bend police officer. His return home, however, exposed the simmering tensions between the mayor and the black community to the national media.

Audience members asked South Bend, Ind., Mayor and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg on June 23 about a fatal police shooting. (The Washington Post)

A protester upset with Buttigieg’s leadership said at a town hall meeting: “You are truly running for president and you want black people to vote for you. You [are] running for president and you want black people to vote for you — that’s not going to happen. That’s not going to happen. That’s not going to happen.”

“I’m not asking for your vote,” the two-term mayor responded. “I will promise that there will be a review to make sure that there is no racism on this department and that it will be independent.”

It was a fraught moment for Buttigieg’s campaign, carrying the risk that one of his first introductions to black voters nationally would be one that put his commitment to resolving a key issue for them in question.

In an otherwise low-key Democratic debate performance in June, Buttigieg admitted his failings on addressing concerns about a police force that has gotten whiter over his tenure. When asked why South Bend’s police force is only 6 percent black while the city’s population is 26 percent black, Buttigieg said: “Because I couldn’t get it done.”

“My community is in anguish right now because of an officer-involved shooting; a black man, Eric Logan, killed by a white officer,” he added. “It’s a mess, and we’re hurting.”

Since, at that point, Buttigieg had barely any standing among black voters, it is hard to say if it hurt his campaign. But it did frame his efforts going forward to reach out to black voters. Those on his campaign said they were taking steps to make gains with them, but those efforts were frequently accompanied by missteps or questions about intent.

The Douglass Plan and other fumbled efforts

Shortly after the police shooting, Buttigieg released the Douglass Plan, an 18-page policy proposal named after abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Buttigieg proposed solutions to a variety of concerns, including health-care inaccessibility and insufficient investment in historically black colleges and universities.

I wrote in the Fix at the time:

Buttigieg’s Douglass Plan aims to “establish comprehensive measures to hold police accountable to their communities.” If elected president, he says, his administration will “increase the number of police departments that use body-worn cameras and develop a national analytics process for public safety processes and results.” Concerns about the absence of body cameras are frequently expressed by activists wanting to see law enforcement held accountable for its actions. The body camera that the South Bend officer was wearing did not record June’s deadly shooting.
Under the Douglass Plan, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division would investigate “law enforcement agencies that have a pattern or practice of violating civil rights and the Constitution, including by racial profiling.” I previously wrote that in response to protests from black activists, President Barack Obama launched initiatives to improve the relationship between law enforcement and minority communities. President Trump’s administration has not continued those programs. In fact, one of Jeff Sessions’s final actions as Trump’s attorney general further restricted the federal government’s ability to enforce changes at law enforcement agencies accused of abuse.

The Buttigieg campaign over the summer was conducting efforts to figure out how they could improve their standing among black voters.

In October, a memo from a campaign research group to the Buttigieg campaign leaked to the news media. It showed an attempt to get to the root of why the mayor was struggling with black voters in South Carolina. The readout of a focus group featuring 24 uncommitted black voters in South Carolina said that Buttigieg’s sexuality was an issue for some of them.

“Being gay was a barrier for these voters, particularly for the men who seemed deeply uncomfortable even discussing it,” reported the Benenson Strategy Group, which conducted the focus groups. “Their preference is for his sexuality to not be front and center.”

The report also concluded that Buttigieg was simply not well-known among black voters, and that better familiarity with him could improve his standing. But it was the details about the focus group attendees’ comments on his sexuality that grabbed headlines — especially since some people more knowledgeable with the black electorate seemed to affirm the findings.

“That’s a generational issue. I know of a lot of people my age who feel that way,” Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) said on CNN in November, referencing Buttigieg’s sexuality.

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you otherwise, because I think everybody knows that’s an issue,” the House majority whip added. “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.”

There was backlash among black voters and those in Democratic politics over the idea that black voters were being stereotyped as homophobic to excuse Buttigieg’s poor performance with them. The campaign said they did not leak the memo, but news of the report had been circulating for weeks before the one of the mayor’s campaign staffers took to Twitter to push back on the idea that black voters are homophobic.

Buttigieg’s campaign has gained momentum recently in the fall by some key measures. His campaign’s overwhelming presence at the Iowa Democratic Party’s fall fundraising dinner seemed to mark a turning point, nabbing headlines and preceding polls that showed him leading in Iowa and among the national front-runners.

His emergence in the field in Iowa has only brought a brighter spotlight. The HBCU Times in late October published an op-ed stating that 400 South Carolinians endorsed Buttigieg’s Douglass Plan. Weeks later, the Intercept reported that some high-profile individuals on the list were not actually endorsing the candidate — and that more than 40 percent of them were not black.

Tameika Devine, a councilwoman in Columbia, S.C., was featured at the top of the op-ed, but she said she has not endorsed Buttigieg and believes the campaign was “intentionally vague” about not clearly articulating that her support for the mayor’s ideas was not the same as endorsing him.

“I don’t know many — actually, now that I think about it, other than the folks working on Mayor Pete’s campaign, I don’t know of any local elected officials who have endorsed him yet,” she said.

The campaign sent a statement to multiple media outlets denying that they claimed that all listed names were Buttigieg supporters.

In the HBCU Times op-ed and in communications with the press, we’ve been clear that not every supporter of the plan is Black, and have never claimed otherwise in any public communication. We never gave the impression publicly that these people were endorsing Pete, only that they supported the plan. After they indicated their support, we reached out to people multiple times giving them the opportunity to review the language of the op-ed and the option to opt-out. We did hear from people who weren’t comfortable being listed and we removed them.

We also learned in November that the Buttigieg campaign website, under the Douglass plan section, had featured a stock photo of a black woman who is actually Kenyan.

“What’s the meaning of the message accompanied by the photo?” the woman asked an Intercept reporter. “Have no idea of what’s happening …”

The Post’s Allyson Chiu reported that Buttigieg’s campaign removed the photo during a website update in September. She reported that a contracting firm chose the stock image in the website’s earlier phase while not knowing it was taken in Africa.

Meanwhile, previous comments by Buttigieg have also been unearthed and scrutinized.

During a 2011 mayoral candidate forum, Buttigieg said many children from low-income communities are not convinced that pursuing an education is worthwhile. “Kids need to see evidence that education is going to work for them,” he said. “There are a lot of kids, especially, the lower-income minority neighborhoods, who literally just haven’t seen it work. There isn’t somebody they know personally who testifies to the value of education.”

The video of these comments resurfaced in November — along with favorable remarks he made in 2010 about the tea party movement, seeming to ignore the fact that at some tea party protests racist tropes and perspectives were being displayed against President Barack Obama.

Those comments are what feed some black voters’ belief that whatever concern Buttigieg is showing for black Americans is recent. Buttigieg apologized in late November for the language, saying that the comments do not align with what he knows today about the obstacles students of color face in their attempts to pursue an education.

Equating being gay to being black

At last month’s Democratic debate, Buttigieg was asked to respond to comments from Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D.-Calif.) arguing that the nominee needs “to be someone who has the experience of connecting with all of who we are, as the diversity of the American people.”

Buttigieg responded by alluding to his experience as a gay man.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg discussed how he would connect with a diverse electorate during the Democratic debate on Nov. 20. (The Washington Post)

“While I do not have the experience of ever having been discriminated against because of the color of my skin, I do have the experience of sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country, turning on the news and seeing my own rights come up for debate, and seeing my rights expanded by a coalition of people like me and people not at all like me,” he responded to Harris, the only black woman in the Democratic race, who dropped out earlier this month.

Harris after the debate called the mayor’s comments “naive” and accused him of trying to compare the struggles of very different communities.

The outreach efforts continue

Buttigieg’s campaign aides are well aware of the challenges. Nina Smith, the mayor’s traveling press secretary, told The Fix that they are regularly on the ground trying to connect with the voters that they believe could improve Buttigieg’s standing with the polls. From visiting predominantly black churches in South Carolina, spending money on ads in the state that share his plan to fight systemic racism and publishing op-eds that lay out the details of his Douglass Plan, Buttigieg’s team wants voters to know that their concerns have not fallen on deaf ears.

The day before Thanksgiving, Buttigieg hit the airwaves in Iowa to discuss his plans for reforming the criminal justice system, supporting minority business owners and decreasing gun violence.

But some of his efforts have fallen flat. And in the current political landscape, that means he has often attracted as much attention for his missed shots as for the fact that he made an attempt.