Deval Patrick wants the Buttigieg vote — and African-Americans too

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent

Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one key takeaway every weekday and a wrap-up each weekend. Reminder: There are 83 days until the Iowa caucuses and 357 days until the 2020 election.

Most voters have never heard of the latest entrant in the not-at-all-crowded Democratic primary: former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who threw his hat into the ring Thursday with a slick two-and-a-half-minute announcement video and an interview with CBS News.

But for anyone who’s been paying attention to politics, his message will sound very familiar. 

“We seem to be migrating to, on the one camp, sort of nostalgia — let’s just get rid ... of the incumbent president and we can go back to doing what we used to do,” Patrick told CBS. “Or, you know, it’s our way, our big idea, or no way. And neither of those, it seems to me, seizes the moment to pull the nation together.” 

Former Massachusetts Gov. and Democratic presidential candidate Deval Patrick campaigns Thursday in Manchester, N.H. (Photo: Charles Krupa/AP)

That’s precisely the pitch that’s been propelling South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg to the top of the polls in Iowa as he tries to position himself as a kind of Goldilocks candidate for wavering Dems: less status quo than former Vice President Joe Biden, less divisive than Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and a safer bet than either of them to beat President Trump next November. 

Here’s Buttigieg on Biden: “What I’m offering is very different. What I’m offering is the idea that there’s no going back to normal, there’s no business as usual.” 

And here’s Buttigieg on Warren: “What is just not true is that hers is the only solution — this ‘my way or the highway’ idea.”

Now Patrick seems to be trying to edge into the same middle-of-the-road lane. But he’s no clone of Buttigieg, as anyone can tell at a glance. Patrick is African-American. Buttigieg, whose father came from Malta, is white.  

And that difference could be the key to Patrick’s campaign. 

It’s no secret that Buttigieg has been struggling to connect with black voters, the Democratic Party’s most loyal and important constituency; rarely a week goes by without another think piece arguing that while Buttigieg may be rising in the polls, he can’t possibly win the nomination unless he improves his paltry black support, which currently stands at 2 percent nationally, on average. (Biden’s support among black voters hovers around 40 percent.) Various explanations have been floated for Buttigieg’s black deficit: lack of effortpolicing controversies during his tenure as mayor, even his homosexuality (a theory, it’s worth noting, that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny). But despite a concerted push on his part, the numbers haven’t budged.   

Pete Buttigieg delivers a Veterans Day address at a campaign event Monday in Rochester, N.H. (Photo: Elise Amendola/AP)

Patrick appears to have noticed. When asked why he has reversed course on a presidential run after ruling one out last year — “It’s hard to see how you even get noticed in such a big, broad field without being shrill, sensational or a celebrity,” he said at the time — people close to Patrick told the New York Times earlier this week that the former governor has concluded that Biden is not “the imposing adversary” he had “expected him to be” and that there is “room in the race for a more dynamic candidate who is closer to the political middle than Mr. Biden’s two most prominent challengers, Ms. Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders.” 

That’s Buttigieg’s strategy to a T — so much so that in his announcement video, Patrick basically borrows the rhetoric Buttigieg has been using to frame what’s at stake in 2020. 

“This time is about whether the day after the election America will keep her promises,” Patrick says. “This time is about more than removing an unpopular and divisive leader, as important as that is, but about delivering instead for you.”

Or, as Buttigieg recently put it: “I am asking you to picture that first day the sun comes up in this country and Donald Trump is no longer the president of the United States. ... What comes next? ... I am running to be the president who will stand amid the rubble, pick up the pieces of our divided nation, and lead us to real action to do right by Americans who have waited far too long.”

Patrick adds his campaign sign to a display in the State House visitors’ center in Concord, N.H. (Photo: Charles Krupa/AP)

But Patrick’s announcement makes it clear he doesn’t just want to be like Buttigieg. He wants to be like Buttigieg but with black support. Immediately after introducing himself as the former governor of Massachusetts, Patrick pivots. “But that’s not where I started,” he says as images of row homes, black residents, city streets and a young Patrick with an impressive Afro hairstyle flash onscreen. “I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. I lived there with my grandparents, my mother and sister in our grandparents’ two-bedroom tenement, some of that time on welfare. I went to big, broken, overcrowded public schools.”

Patrick eventually received a scholarship to a prestigious Massachusetts prep school and graduated from Harvard Law. But the point he’s making is that his roots help him empathize with today’s electorate. “The anxiety and even anger that I saw in my neighbors on the South Side — the sense that the government and the economy were letting us down, were no longer about us — is what folks feel all over America today, in all kinds of communities,” he goes on to say. 

That’s a connection, Patrick seems to imply, that Buttigieg — a Rhodes scholar and the son of a linguist and a Notre Dame English professor — can’t make.

“I’m placing my faith in the people who feel left out and left back, who just want a fair shot at a better future,” says Patrick — a future “not built,” as he adds in what feels like a shot at his rival, “by somebody better than you, not built for you, but built with you.”

Of course, there are other black candidates in the race. But Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California have both tried to dent Biden’s sizable lead among black voters, and so far both have failed. Patrick is not the first black candidate to run on moderation and unity, either. (His pal Barack Obama used that approach in 2008, with some success.) 

Patrick files to have his name listed on the New Hampshire primary ballot. (Photo: Charles Krupa/AP)

But by adopting a message that seems to be clicking right now — rather than parroting Booker’s “radical love” or Harris’s emphasis on “justice” — Patrick is trying to fast-track his way to a winning coalition. On the one hand, poach some Buttigieg backers who may eventually come to see the 37-year-old gay mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city as less electable than he claims; on the other, pick up some black voters who are unenthusiastic about Biden but wary of Buttigieg.

Going forward, Patrick faces huge hurdles. No presidential candidate in recent history has won the nomination after entering the contest this late. He’s already missed the deadline to file for the Arkansas and Alabama primaries. It will be near impossible for him to organize in time for Iowa. And qualifying for the debates will be a challenge.    

But if Patrick takes off in his neighboring state of New Hampshire, and then in the largely black state of South Carolina, and then nationally — a very big if, but the one he’s banking on — his “Buttigieg with black support” strategy will deserve the credit.

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