OTTUMWA, Iowa — Pete Buttigieg’s weakness among African Americans is shadowing him through the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses, drawing questions from white Iowans on the trail and prompting him to speak about how his campaign has addressed complaints from staffers of color.
The pressure comes as a raft of new polls show that Buttigieg’s standing in the black community, both in South Carolina and nationally, hasn’t budged, despite his campaign dropping more than $2 million in TV and radio ads in the state. A Fox News poll found just 2 percent of African American Democrats in South Carolina back him. And a national Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday found Buttigieg at zero percent support among black primary voters.
That problem chased Buttigieg across Iowa. It came up in a question at his Fox News forum on Sunday in Des Moines, as well as at two town hall events Buttigieg’s campaign held on Monday. In North Liberty, a question drawn from the audience asked Buttigieg what he was doing “to earn the African American vote.” In Vinton, another voter told Buttigieg he was concerned the candidate is “not being received by communities of color.”
And on Tuesday, Buttigieg told reporters he and his campaign have “got to work much harder to do a better job when it comes to making sure inclusion is a reality, especially in the Trump era.”
Buttigieg was responding to reports in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal detailing complaints from some current and former staffers of color on his campaign who said their opinions were undervalued and that they had felt the pressure of working for a campaign that has failed to gain traction with nonwhite voters.
Building his campaign has led to “conversations that are tough,” Buttigieg continued. “They can be a risk, but it needs to happen because this conversation nationally is tough. We need to be practicing, in our own organizations, what we're proposing needs to happen across the United States.”
In response to voter questions in Iowa about his support from black voters, Buttigieg argued that he hasn’t had “years or decades” to introduce himself to black voters in the South, while saying he has more support in South Bend, Ind., where he was mayor for two terms. Buttigieg said that even African American candidates struggled "to get out of single digits in the South” because “folks in the South are very skeptical, and not without reason.”
A swing through South Carolina last week also saw tough questions. Buttigieg acknowledged there that when he holds “big rally type events” in the state, “it’s mostly white folks showing up.”
On Tuesday, Buttigieg did not say whether he had spoken to his campaign staffers about the controversy.
“I'm always looking for ways to communicate that — and one right now is to say again how important the contributions of these staff members are, and it's something I work to do eye-to-eye whenever I'm in the room with people who bring so much to this campaign,” Buttigieg said.
The reports Tuesday reopened the wounds of a Buttigieg fundraiser in October that was supposed to be hosted by Steve Patton, a Chicago attorney who had previously fought against the release of video showing the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager, by Chicago police.
After the campaign faced public criticism for the fundraiser, it disinvited Patton from the event.
“When we experienced an internal communications breakdown in our vetting and decision-making process this fall, we instituted a review enlisting outside help and adjusted the process to ensure diverse perspectives were included on vetting decisions and that there were multiple opportunities to flag vetting issues,” the campaign wrote in a memo posted Tuesday on Medium.
During Buttigieig's three town halls on Tuesday, black voters' 2020 preferences didn’t come up. But as voters filtered out of the county fairgrounds building in Osceola, Cathie Grimm, a Buttigieg precinct captain, said she’s concerned about it.
And Teri Adamson, who came with Grimm and is considering caucusing for either Elizabeth Warren or Buttigieg, said she’d heard about Buttigieg’s problems connecting with people of color and is worried about them, though she conceded it “may just be because he’s relatively unknown.”