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Can young black voters save Mayor Pete?

Brittany Shepherd
·National Politics Reporter
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COLUMBIA, S.C. — The premise for the event was straightforward enough: South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg was set to join a group of volunteers and potential voters celebrating homecoming at Allen University, a historically black college here. The setting, too, was prime for mingling: The sprawling green lawn of the Charles W. Johnson Stadium was expansive, large enough to pack several dozen guests. Campaign embeds and reporters were told to push back a few hundred feet from set-up tents adorned with “African-Americans for Pete” signs to make adequate room.

Handouts detailing the campaign’s Douglass Plan were neatly sorted into piles atop tables in the tents, next to yard signs and merchandise. A Buttigieg staffer stood on an apple box, placed in the center of the field, directly in front of the campaign embed cameras, presumably testing for potential glare that would impede a possible gaggle of on-air remarks. Each volunteer wore a pale tan shirt that read “HBCUs for Pete.” And the campaign seemed ready to party: On the far left side of the tents, a staffer grilled hamburgers and hotdogs. To the right, DJ B-Sam spun chart-topping tunes, including the once innocuous but now ill-fated “High Hopes” — Buttigieg’s walk-on song.

Press arrived at 11 a.m. Buttigieg was set to arrive at noon. An hour went by, and the first attendees walked onto the field.

“Mayor Pete? No, ma’am,” said Caleb Jeffrey, a 19-year-old self-identified member of one of the university’s athletics teams, when asked if he knew who the South Bend presidential candidate — who was hosting the very event Jeffrey was attending — was. “I haven’t been keeping up, we don’t get cable in our room,” he said, gesturing to his teammates, who declined to be named on record.

Jeffrey said his coach told them to “stop by.” It was 12:08 p.m. Jeffrey and his friends were some of the first in line to get food.

By 12:10, there was still no sign of the Midwestern mayor. A politician late to a speaking engagement? Not so unusual, but Buttigieg was set to speak at a criminal justice event across town at 1. Striking, however, was that beyond the volunteers, only a handful — maybe 15 or so — individuals had shown up. As 12:15 approached, reporters began to chatter; at one point earlier in the noon hour, media seemed to outnumber the guests.

Many older voters who were also in line for the barbecue declined to speak on record.

Around 12:20, a few more people walked out of the stadium toward the event. And at 12:26 p.m., a smiling Buttigieg (no jacket, dark blue tie, brown shoes) appeared, flanked by his traveling team. He did the sorts of things candidates do at smaller, casual stops. He spoke with volunteers. Accepted a custom hat from a fan. At 12:34, Buttigieg ducked into one of the tents (the one without the DJ) and spoke to the crowd (a mix of volunteers and event-goers), which numbered, in this reporter’s estimation, around 40 people at peak attendance.

He took no questions from the press. By 12:45, Buttigieg was gone. And so was the apple box.

Pete Buttigieg, center
Pete Buttigieg attends a Sunday service in Rock Hill, S.C. (Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Buttigieg’s abbreviated visit was part of his campaign’s effort to increase its younger black outreach efforts, and the Allen University stop was one of several campus events in South Carolina. Pete for America equipped itself with young, connected staff, tapping Walter Clyburn Reed, grandson of Rep. Jim Clyburn, a longtime friend of Joe Biden, as the HBCU field organizer in the state. Much of the rest of the campaign’s South Carolina staff, including its state, political and deputy political director, are alumni of South Carolina State, another historically black university.

During his remarks, Buttigieg made no mention of the so-called elephant in the room — that less than 1 percent of African-Americans in the Palmetto State actively support him, according to two major polls. It’s a number that, while small numerically, can have a significant impact on public perception of a campaign that is increasing in national size and the influence of the millennial centrist who has skyrocketed to the top of of Iowa polls.

But during his brief statement, Buttigieg did mention the importance of coalition building, especially with young people: “I hope folks here get to know each other,” he said. “We are building community, and the community we are building here is part of the relationships that are going to help us win South Carolina, move on to the nomination and replace this president with something that is dramatically better.”

His message to the homecoming crew was nothing new for Buttigieg or his supporters, who claim that he’s able to simultaneously deliver fresh perspectives, especially as the only millennial in the race, while appealing to large swaths of voters.

Other campaigns may beg to disagree.

Nearly a month after the Allen University cookout, Oliver Davis Jr., the longest-serving black leader on South Bend’s Common Council, endorsed Joe Biden rather than the mayor. He is not exactly an unbiased party, however: Davis is currently running for mayor of South Bend, a position only held thus far by whites.

In an interview with Politico, Davis said that Buttigieg’s difficulties with the black community are far from a new phenomenon. “For us, this has been a consistent issue that has not gone away,” Davis said.

The presumed subtext of the endorsement could be read as a major blow to Buttigieg: How can a presidential candidate get national black support if he can’t even get a boost back home?

Pete Buttigieg meets potential voters
Buttigieg greets potential voters at Morehouse College in Atlanta. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Yet that question makes a few assumptions, one being that the black voting bloc is homogeneous, acting in lockstep despite major differences in geography, socioeconomic status and age. Data suggests that assumption is less than impregnable. There’s “potential fluidity” with many young voters, according to John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Institute of Politics, which specializes in data collection for voters under 30. One example Della Volpe found is among young supporters of Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, two candidates who were leading Harvard’s polling in October. According to data, half of Sanders’s and Warren’s under-30 supporters are “very enthusiastic” about the candidate.

“That means about half are not,” said Della Volpe. “To me, that spells that they want to learn more, understand more, think more about the campaign before they are locked down,” which provides a potential opening for Buttigieg.

A candidate like Buttigieg could see a chance to persuade voters who are likely to vote in the Democratic primary but largely shy away from the label of “liberal.” According to the Harvard polling data, only 43 percent of likely black voters would call themselves liberal, and 49 percent would call themselves moderate.

One place to meet young black voters is historically black colleges and universities, and that’s what Buttigieg has pursued.

Arielle Brandy, a 29-year-old black woman from South Bend who joined Buttigieg to campaign on his behalf at the October cookout, said that coalition building at HBCUs was a “top priority” for the campaign and that homophobia was likely not a barrier for black voters.

“I don’t think that’s what it is. One of the things is that people want to meet Pete. They want to be able to see from him, hear from him,” Brandy said. “I think by him being able to build relationships and actually meet and talk to people, what he loves to do, I think that will make all the difference.”

According to the Buttigieg campaign, HBCU efforts have yielded high turnout, including a recent event at Howard University in Washington, D.C., that had over 100 attendees. In early November, CNN reported that Buttigeig’s campaign was making a big push on black outreach in Atlanta, which included an event where over 300 students from Spelman, Morehouse and Clark Atlanta turned out to meet the mayor. The campaign also purchased a Snapchat Geofilter, which superimposes custom graphics onto a user’s camera, to run during the Georgia event to help create buzz.

Reaching potential young voters on social media is a tried and effective way to boost name recognition, explains former Obama campaign national youth vote director Hans Riemer: “You do have to go a little bit outside of the box, but it works.” Team Pete was the only campaign to be placed on the “Discover” page by Snapchat after the November debate. According to the app’s own data, 75 percent of all 13- to 34-year-olds use Snapchat.

Offline mobilization efforts are in the works in South Carolina, too, where two dozen volunteers work with their early state team beyond homecoming season at events like debate watch parties to keep the relationship afloat.

Still, a handful of Democrat candidates have, with varying degrees of subtlety, hit the Buttigieg campaign over the past several weeks with veiled criticism.

“I actually have a good track record with black voters,” said former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro to Daily Show host Trevor Noah. “It’s risky to have a candidate at the top of the ticket that cannot speak to, in a convincing way, those different communities."

Cory Booker, left, and Pete Buttigieg
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Buttigieg at a Democratic presidential primary debate. (Photo: David J. Phillip/AP)

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker made a similar swipe at Buttigieg during November’s debate: “I have a lifetime of experience with black voters, I’ve been one since I was 18. No one here should need a focus group to understand black voters,” said Booker, a not-so-coy reference to a presumably leaked document published by the State newspaper, which came to the conclusion that one of many reasons Buttigieg might not be clicking with black voters is his sexuality. Buttigieg is the first openly gay man running as a Democratic candidate for president.

During the same debate, Buttigieg addressed the criticism, saying that while he has no experience being a person of color, he’s had the experience of “sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country” due to his sexuality, a rebuttal that California Sen. Kamala Harris later told reporters was “naive” and “not productive.”

Critics of Buttigieg have highlighted the mayor’s sagging national poll numbers regarding black support. One of the targets? His walkup song “High Hopes”— an innocuous tune sung first in the mid-naughts by the pop-punk band Panic! at the Disco. Now it’s been closely associated with a video of Buttigieg volunteers dancing in what some might call an out-of-rhythm manner.

The cringe-inducing video has taken on a new, much more critical life. For example, one meme captioned “mayor pete trying to pick up black voters” shows someone in a life-size Woody costume from the movie “Toy Story” poorly breakdancing in front of a group of seemingly unimpressed black people to the tune of, you guessed it, “High Hopes.” The video, posted by Business Insider producer Manny Fidel, went viral — and fast: nearly 35,000 likes and 5,000 retweets in two days.

Keron Campbell with Pete Buttigieg
Morehouse College student Keron Campbell snaps a selfie with presidential hopeful Buttigieg. (Photo: Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

That wasn’t the end of the online mockery. A college student is promising to “do the High Hopes dance” for 10 consecutive hours in an attempt to raise money for charity. A photo of singer-songwriter Lizzo’s custom Valentino tiny purse captioned “Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s black vote” was retweeted 3,000 times overnight.

Some criticism is less pop-culture-infused. A photo posted to Twitter by Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten, from Tulane University in New Orleans, a majority black city, was quickly castigated on Twitter for reflecting a lack of diversity.

“Twitter is a universe of many galaxies and solar systems. It would be difficult for a candidate to become a favorite if Black Twitter is working against you. So, that’s not easy,” said Riemer during an interview with Yahoo News, adding that the social media opinion of Obama during 2008 also ebbed at times. The foremost challenge he foresees between Buttigieg’s campaign and this subset of voters is name recognition. “One day everyone hates you, the next day everyone loves you. That’s politics. It might be 500 people on Twitter who are pummeling you, but the other 50 million have no idea who you are.”

Knowing that name recognition matters, the Buttigieg campaign’s calculus goes something like this: Once more people meet Pete, the more they will become aware of his policies like the Douglass Plan, the more they will support him.

There’s some truth to that. The Quinnipiac poll, one of two that reported Buttigieg’s African-American support at less than 1 percent, also indicated that 60 percent of black voters surveyed said they did not know enough about him to form an opinion. And while a majority of older black voters have seemed to pledge their allegiance to Joe Biden, younger black voters are nowhere near as decided and are far less self-identified as “liberal” than their white counterparts, according to the Institute of Politics.

“Young people, especially Black youth, understand that they have a personal stake in the outcome of this election,” said the campaign’s national youth engagement director, Marvin McMoore, in an emailed statement. “Pete and our campaign will continue to work to engage Black youth and listen to their priorities. People are still getting to know Pete, and when they hear Pete’s plan to secure a future that grows opportunities for future generations, they are overwhelmingly supportive.”

And Buttigieg, despite the poll results, continues to insist he can make headway with black voters. At a California fundraiser in November, he heavily implied that Biden’s lead with black voters in South Carolina is nowhere near impenetrable.

Pete Buttigieg with Morehouse College students
Buttigieg with Morehouse College students earlier this month. (Photo: Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

“There’s one candidate who’s got a far-and-away lead in South Carolina,” said Buttigieg in private remarks reported by the Intercept. “I actually don’t think it’s because it’s the candidate with the best answers on the subject of race. I think it’s because it’s the candidate who’s got the most familiarity.”

Yet the campaign still has work to do if it wants to catch up to Biden’s near 40-point lead among African-Americans. And, in Riemer’s experience, nabbing the youth vote was a perfect way to counteract the older-voters demographic. Think of it as “carpool caucusing” — a young person might be excited by a presidential candidate, and even if they’re not of voting age or not registered to vote, they can speak to their peers, their parents, their peers’ parents, teachers and beyond. This theory can easily be applied to young black voters too.

“A key part of the Obama strategy was set by some campaign officials who weren’t sure if young people would turn out, but they thought they would influence their parents,” Riemer said.

Whether the strategy would affect the campaign in a direct way, motivating a young voter to go out to the polls themselves, or perhaps influence communities indirectly, was unclear.

“Either way, it was a good thing. There is a huge element for young voters when they are excited — they create buzz and lead other voters demographically to that candidate,” Riemer said. “That may be partly what’s going on with Pete.”

He stressed that seeing young voters in this light was instrumental to true coalition building.

“No question that young voters can persuade their parents and grandparents and aunts and neighbors that a particular candidate has ... inspiring leadership ability,” Riemer said. “Focusing on the youth vote can bring that to a campaign.”

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