NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Pete Buttigieg has become a force in the Democratic presidential race, with his experience as a young mayor and gay veteran generating media attention, big crowds in Iowa and a $7 million fundraising haul for the first quarter of the year.
But in South Carolina — where the black voters who constituted roughly 60 percent of the party’s primary turnout in 2016 value familiarity and tradition — he faces challenges.
At Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church here, many Democrats attending a bustling Easter event — where hot trays of eggs, thick ham and biscuits lined the gymnasium — said in interviews that they barely knew him. That was particularly true of the older members who do not follow the podcasts or television programs on which Buttigieg is a regular.
Others said they admire the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., but would prefer a seasoned hand such as former vice president Joe Biden, or a lawmaker such as Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.).
“I’m waiting for Biden, who has the history with President Obama,” said Otis Byrd, a 68-year-old Democrat and retired lawyer. Biden is expected to launch his bid for the White House on Thursday.
“Buttigieg is just too fresh,” Byrd said. “I’m not sure where he’s going to get his support. As for Biden, I know who he is, what his values are. Maybe we need the establishment to beat President Trump.”
Even as Buttigieg builds momentum nationally, he is contending with a bracing reality in an increasingly diverse party: Early buzz does not quickly translate into a winning national coalition.
Buttigieg has acknowledged the steep climb ahead as he competes against several female and minority candidates with long records, and with deeper political relationships in South Carolina and elsewhere. Recent polls show him performing best among liberal, wealthy and white Democrats.
Buttigieg’s hurdle is hardly unusual. A line of past Democratic presidential contenders has surged out of contests in Iowa or New Hampshire only to hit a political wall in South Carolina as the contest shifted from predominantly white states. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was trounced by Hillary Clinton in 2016, losing the state’s primary vote by nearly 50 percentage points. That defeat, and later ones in other Southern states, hovered over Sanders’s campaign for its duration as it struggled to expand its base.
Next year, South Carolina’s primary, the fourth stop in the race, will again be critical. It will be held on Feb. 29 — days before the March 3 “Super Tuesday” primaries — and could signal which Democrat is best positioned to bring together the party’s key demographic groups.
Jaime Harrison, the first black chairman of the state Democratic Party, said he has told Buttigieg and other candidates that they “cannot take South Carolina for granted.”
“My message to Pete was, no Democrat is going to be elected president unless they can turn black voters out in the South,” said Harrison, who like Buttigieg ran for chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 2016 — both lost — and is friendly with him. “So whether you win here or lose here, you have to show you can turn them out.”
While Buttigieg’s bid to become the first gay presidential nominee is part of his appeal, his profile as a young, white and married man could also be a burden among some older religious voters in South Carolina, where same-sex marriage continues to stir debate.
According to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, black Americans have been far less supportive of same-sex marriage than Americans overall, although their support for it has increased in recent years. Fifty-one percent of black Americans supported it in 2017, compared with 62 percent of all Americans, but that was a jump from 39 percent support among black Americans in 2015.
At Mount Moriah, church members considered questions of race and faith as they discussed the scope of Buttigieg’s life, weighing aspects of his personal story with his time as a naval intelligence officer and mayor of a Midwestern city of about 100,000 people.
But there was no clear consensus about whether Buttigieg’s background would be a burden or a boost among state Democrats — and debates at this early stage were divided along generational lines.
Several members suggested that older black Democrats would be interested in hearing more from Buttigieg, an Episcopalian who quotes Scripture, but would probably lean toward Biden, Harris or Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), all of whom have made an effort to build ties here.
“I like what he’s been saying, but the fact is many black Christians are very conservative on that issue,” Shelia Anderson, a 68-year-old Democrat and retired teacher, said when asked about Buttigieg’s marriage to husband Chasten Buttigieg. “Success won’t come overnight,” she said, adding that he will have to make repeated visits to the state to impress voters.
Still, she said, if Buttigieg has a “warm, inclusive message for Christians, he’ll find people are ready to listen.”
Earley Vincent, an 80-year-old Democrat and deacon at the church, said: “I know he’s a military veteran. I served in the Navy, too — E-9 rank. He seems poised. That’s all fine. I want to hear how he’s going to get the schools around here going and if he’s got a plan to fix our infrastructure.”
Younger members frequently framed Buttigieg as someone who faced tough competition from an impressive field — and they largely shrugged off questions about his marriage and age. But they wondered about where he stood on issues that matter to the black community.
“It’s too soon to have a decision on anyone. What I want to hear is where they stand on what could be a black agenda,” John Mitchell, a 31-year-old Democrat and government worker, said as he sat with his wife, Jerez.
“I’m really looking forward to hearing about the diversity piece and cultural competency piece,” said Jerez Mitchell, a 32-year-old Democrat and therapist. “It’s more imperative than ever that everyone has a voice, not only various sects, so we should shine a light on how they see that.”
Joshua Downey, a 22-year-old Democratic-leaning independent and state agricultural employee, said: “Kamala Harris has impressed me. Cory Booker has impressed me. I’m watching them closely.”
Downey compared Buttigieg to former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, calling both of them “energized” candidates who would have to make significant inroads before becoming favorites in the state.
O’Rourke this week tapped Lauren Harper, a black woman and South Carolina consultant, to be his state director. Buttigieg’s campaign, which is trying to ramp up following his rapid rise, has not yet made announcements about his operation, but aides say staffers are being recruited.
The new attention on Buttigieg in South Carolina comes as his record in South Bend with the black community is under growing scrutiny. His administration’s efforts to knock down blighted houses in the city have been criticized by some Democrats as an overly aggressive push to revamp lower-income areas that are home to minority residents.
At a CNN town hall in New Hampshire on Monday, Buttigieg defended his decision and said he worked alongside minority homeowners to help protect the values of their properties and stop local drug dealers from using vacant houses.
But he added, “No policy is perfect, and we learned some things the hard way on this one,” including the need for a “lighter touch” as his administration strictly enforced housing codes, he said.
Buttigieg’s demotion of South Bend’s first black police chief, Darryl Boykins, in 2012 is another controversy that has come to the fore. Buttigieg has cited as his rationale for the ouster a federal investigation of Boykins for secretly recording officers’ phone calls. Boykins went on to sue the city for racial discrimination — and Buttigieg has been under pressure ever since to release the tapes, on which several white officers reportedly used racist language.
At CNN’s Monday town hall, Buttigieg was asked about those tapes but said he did not know about their content because they are part of ongoing litigation. He called the episode “frustrating and painful.”
And as with his housing moves, Buttigieg then told the crowd that he could have done better. “I was absorbed on making sure we weren’t tripping on any land mines,” he said. “I was, frankly, a little bit slow to understand just how much anguish underlaid the community’s response.”
Eleven miles from the church at a coffee shop on Charleston’s Daniel Island, mentions of Buttigieg sparked far more enthusiasm among white Democrats as the upscale planned community filled up with cars and SUVs for an acoustic concert by Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds.
“I like that he’s a leader for a new generation,” said Jackson Surrett, a 26-year-old Democrat and barista. “My mom and I are debating Pete. She loves him, but she’s not sure he can win. She’s terrified that Trump is somehow going to win again, and she thinks Biden might have the best shot.”
Surrett said he is leaning toward supporting Harris because of what he saw as her strong performance during Senate hearings.
Robin Arnoff is a 58-year-old Democrat who moved to Daniel Island from New York. “My view is he’s fresh in the way Obama was in 2008,” Arnoff said. “John F. Kennedy was what, 43, when he was elected?”
At Peace Pie, an ice cream shop in historic Charleston, on Sunday, Kathryn Johnston, a 21-year-year old Democrat and college student, said she was torn between O’Rourke and Sanders but was open to hearing more about Buttigieg.
“I think Bernie has the best consistency,” Johnston said. “Pete’s climbing up. My heart, though, is with Bernie. I love him. Maybe he can pick Pete as his running mate.”
Buttigieg last visited South Carolina in late March. The trip came a few weeks after his star turn at a prior CNN town hall gave his presidential hopes a sudden jolt. Bigger-than-expected crowds greeted him, and Buttigieg talked about his marriage and his faith. He also spoke about the “deadly threat” of white nationalism — a concern that has not faded in the years since nine black worshipers were killed in 2015 at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
But at those events, Buttigieg put his emphasis, as ever, on his pragmatic governing style in Indiana, which he called a model for courting voters in red states where Trump retains popular support.
“There is written nowhere that a state like South Carolina or Indiana or anywhere else has to be conservative forever,” Buttigieg said at a gathering in Columbia, drawing cheers.
The Post and Courier, the state’s largest newspaper, noted that Buttigieg’s event drew a “mostly white crowd.”