ORANGEBURG, S.C. — When Pete Buttigieg holds “big rally type events” in South Carolina, “it’s mostly white folks showing up,” he acknowledged ruefully Thursday night. And his struggle to fix that problem has become an existential threat to his presidential ambitions.
Buttigieg’s low standing with black voters has been a long-running theme, and as he and his campaign argued that he simply wasn’t well-known enough, it is one he has worked to correct. Over the past month and a half, he has invested more money advertising in South Carolina, where a majority of Democrats are African American, than any of the non-billionaire Democrats running for president.
But the more than $2 million Buttigieg poured into TV and radio ads, some featuring black supporters touting the former South Bend (Ind.) mayor, hasn’t budged his stubbornly low poll numbers in the state — 2 percent among African American Democrats in a recent Fox News poll.
Even as Buttigieg remains in contention to win the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, his failure to gain traction with Democrats of color looks set to arrest any momentum he hopes to generate when the 2020 race leaves those mostly white states. Questions about his weakness among black voters even trailed Buttigieg through Iowa during five days of town halls there last week.
“If he does well in Iowa, I don’t see [Buttigieg] as dead on arrival here, but he’s certainly on life support in South Carolina,” said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, an influential state lawmaker who has not endorsed in the 2020 primary.
It’s not for lack of “fishing” for support, but “folks aren’t biting,” said Brady Quirk-Garvan, a former chairman of the Charleston Democrats who endorsed Sen. Cory Booker before Booker dropped out of the presidential race earlier this month. “When you’ve dropped that much money and you aren’t seeing movement, then that says something about where your base of support is.”
On Thursday, Buttigieg swung through South Carolina for a last-minute visit, just 10 days before the Iowa caucuses, to reach audiences he’s struggled to find: rooms of majority-black voters. His events looked strikingly different than his standing-room-only town halls in Iowa and New Hampshire.
In a pair of events — one moderated by activist and CNN commentator Angela Rye before a crowd of students at historically black Claflin University, and another in Moncks Corner led by Charlamagne Tha God, host of the Breakfast Club — Buttigieg answered questions from the hosts and audience members on his policy proposals for addressing black economic development, affordable housing and expanding funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
When Buttigieg noted the lack of racial diversity at some of his South Carolina events in conversation with Rye, she jumped in: “That scare you?”
“Yes,” Buttigieg replied. “In order to deserve to win, I’ve got to be speaking to everybody.”
But Buttigieg’s campaign also hedges expectations about the state. “Will you see the same results as Iowa? You know, probably not,” said Rep. Anthony Brown, Buttigieg’s national campaign co-chairman, who will continue campaigning for Buttigieg in South Carolina throughout the weekend when the candidate returns to Iowa.
“Keep in mind that Vice President Biden and Sen. Sanders had the opportunity to run nationally, a number of times, so they’re better known” in South Carolina, Brown continued. “The more time we spend there, the more people get to know who Pete Buttigieg is, what he stands for, that he’ll fight for us and for our families, I think we’ll see the numbers move in a good direction.”
Buttigieg has grown his organizational footprint in South Carolina, adding more than 30 organizers and four field offices throughout the fall. But those staff additions lagged behind other presidential campaigns.
Buttigieg also noted that he’s competing against rivals, like Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, who have had “years, even decades to demonstrate” their support to African American voters.
“Here I am … this new, young, white guy, who comes along saying, ‘look at my great plans,’ to voters who have been taken for granted or felt taken for granted again and again and again, which means that high bar is high for a very good reason,” Buttigieg said in Orangeburg. “The best I can do is tell the story of my own community — the good, the bad and the indifferent, and never pretending for a minute that I know what it’s like to be followed around a department store because of my race.”
Later that night, Charlamagne Tha God put it more bluntly: “How do we know you aren’t just blowing smoke up the black community’s ass in order to get our support?”
“I didn’t get into running for office in order to comfort the comfortable, and I walked away from a pretty good paying job in order to make myself useful back home,” Buttigieg responded. “That means making yourself useful to everybody who has reason to doubt whether government is working for them.”
Buttigieg’s conversations in South Carolina, though largely policy-focused, circled back to his record in South Bend and his unfamiliarity with the black community. Buttigieg answered questions about his failure to award more contracts to minority-owned businesses as mayor, while also acknowledging his controversial relationship with black police officers in South Bend.
In lightning round questions with Rye about the last song he’d listened to, Buttigieg said Iceland’s Sigur Rós, an avant-garde rock band. But he did say “what’s good” in all seven languages he speaks, including English.
Buttigieg’s struggles here mirror some of the same concerns that have bubbled up even in other early states where he is doing better: his inexperience. “For some, it’s his age, and for others, he’s a mayor of a small city and they don’t feel like he has the experience,” said Tameika Isaac-Devine, a Columbia city councilwoman who has not endorsed in the primary.
Some South Carolina Democratic operatives said Buttigieg’s best hope lies in a big showing in Iowa.
"The only way Buttigieg really gains ground here is if he can prove to voters that he’s a viable candidate for nomination,” meaning victories in Iowa or New Hampshire, said Tyler Jones, a Democratic consultant based in South Carolina who is unaffiliated in the Democratic primary. “But he’s got a ceiling in South Carolina because I don’t know how he's going to make the case to African Americans in two weeks, after Iowa and before we vote."
Others, like Cobb-Hunter, doubted anything could shift the state toward the former mayor at this point. “I don’t see that his finish [in Iowa] having any appreciable impact on what his numbers in South Carolina will look like,” Cobb-Hunter said.
State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, who endorsed Biden earlier this month, said South Carolina is “dug in for Joe,” and its voters have “never looked to Iowa or New Hampshire to base our decisions.”
That’s an ongoing problem for the entire Democratic primary field not named Biden. The former vice president is leading in South Carolina by more than 20 points and receives 43 percent backing from black voters, according to the most recent polling from Fox News.
Tom Steyer, who’s spent nearly $12 million on TV ads in the state, is putting up the strongest challenge, drawing 15 percent total, including 16 percent of black voters, followed by Sanders with 12 percent. No one else broke double digits. And nationally, the poll numbers among black Democrats are similar, with Buttigieg trailing with 2 percent support in a poll from The Washington Post-Ipsos in January.
“African Americans can get stuck on what we know, and we know Biden,” said Daekwon Randall, a 20-year-old Claflin University student, who met Buttigieg Thursday night. Randall, who’s still undecided, said he’s considering backing Biden and, now, Buttigieg “after actually meeting him and getting to talk to him.”
Still, Randall said, “I need to do my research on him.”