Pete Buttigieg is like Joe Biden without the black friends

Malaika Jabali
Photograph: Jim Bourg/Reuters

While Pete Buttigieg might feel pretty good about effectively tying with Bernie Sanders in Iowa – the votes are still being counted – and landing in second place in New Hampshire, Democrats can count his relative success as a spectacular loss. The problem with the current Democratic primary system is that it doesn’t prove candidates’ viability in a general election; it just proves how good they are at winning Iowa and New Hampshire. Buttigieg is representative of this problem.

Related: Pete Buttigieg is the embodiment of white privilege – and black voters know it | Benjamin Dixon

Buttigieg’s difficulty attracting black Democratic voters – who are important in March’s Super Tuesday contests – is well documented. A November Quinnipiac poll showed he had essentially zero support from black South Carolina voters. Since then, that support has grown to 2%. Buttigieg’s donor base is richer and whiter than the bases of the other Democratic candidates. And of course there are issues with his treatment of racism and inequality in South Bend, Indiana, where he served as mayor and where racial inequality is more stark than the US on average.

These failures alone don’t rule him out. Hypothetically, there’s still time for him to try to gain ground. But based on his campaign’s current engagement levels with black voters it is tough to believe he will catch up. Reports from Buttigieg’s southern campaign trail indicate that black voters haven’t really gotten to know him; he has emphasized the fact that he’s an upstart with whom black voters simply aren’t familiar. However, his campaign doesn’t seem especially committed to overcoming the problem.

This can be measured, in part, by ground game. Although Buttigieg has made some personal stops in South Carolina, he has the fewest field offices there of any Democratic frontrunner, with just four in the state. (Even Joe Biden, who has longstanding name recognition and doesn’t especially need South Carolina field offices, has more.) None of Buttigieg’s offices are in majority black cities, even though the primary importance of South Carolina is to appeal to black Democratic voters.

Instead of tackling this gap head-on, Buttigieg exorbitantly front-loaded his field presence in Iowa and New Hampshire. He had more field offices in Iowa (33) than in all other states combined (28). Iowa and New Hampshire also happen to be among the five whitest states in the country and wholly unreflective of who actually supports Democrats in general elections. Black Americans made up 25% of the Democratic party’s 2016 primary voters. They are a mere 1.7% of the population in New Hampshire and 4% in Iowa.

The implied contrast, of course, is Biden. Biden polls well with black voters, benefits from strong name recognition from the Obama years, and frequently visits South Carolina, often in the company of the African American congressman Jim Clyburn. While Biden’s political policies have often been terrible for black Americans, he is, on average, their most popular choice.

But Buttigieg straddles the worst of neoliberal worlds. He appeals to the Democratic party’s elite donors – alienating him from some working-class voters – without having done even the minimal and purely performative outreach to people of color expected of any Democratic candidate. Basically, he’s Biden without the black friends.

Buttigieg’s failures are particularly problematic when you consider the other candidates

Most other Democratic candidates have struggled to attract black support and support among voters of color more generally, though Sanders’ popularity with people of color has markedly improved.

Yet Buttigieg’s failures are particularly problematic when you consider the other candidates. Warren, whose donor base is almost as white and affluent as Buttigieg’s, has had multiple roundtables to earn the support of progressive black women organizers, like the Black Womxn For coalition. Sanders has over twice the field staff as Buttigieg in South Carolina, including in the vastly majority black city of Orangeburg. He has also launched a number of tours across historically black colleges and universities, and he has over a dozen field offices in California.

Buttigieg, meanwhile, does not have a single field office in California, according to his campaign website, which grossly hinders his ground game with Latino voters. His campaign has touted black support where it doesn’t exist, including by falsely claiming that certain black leaders had endorsed his Douglass Plan for Black America. Further, the campaign underplayed how much the plan was buttressed by white endorsers.

Buttigieg’s success reveals both the abject uselessness of focusing on early states that don’t reflect the Democratic party’s diversity and the essential hollowness of his campaign. Like his political career, it allows him to collect accomplishments without much sense that he is particularly qualified.

  • Malaika Jabali is a public policy attorney, writer and activist