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What’s Really Behind Pete Buttigieg’s Lack Of Support Among Black Voters?

Why is Pete Buttigieg doing so poorly among black voters?

This is an increasingly important question, both for his campaign and for the overall state of the Democratic primary. Black voters will likely make up about 25 percent of Democratic primary voters, and they’ll be a majority in states like Alabama and Mississippi. The South Bend, Indiana, mayor will have a hard time winning the delegates he needs to secure the Democratic nomination without support from black voters. And if his numbers among nonwhite voters stay low, Buttigieg could also have issues with white Democrats, who are increasingly conscious of racial issues and might balk at being part of an overwhelmingly white coalition.

Exactly why Buttigieg is struggling with black voters is a complicated question. And it’s a question many, many reporters are also looking into. So what I tried to do, using survey data and my own reporting, was to look at some of the explanations being offered and break down which of them seem particularly compelling and which I feel more skeptical of.

Relatively clear problems for Buttigieg

Lately, Buttigieg is doing great in Iowa polls and pretty well in New Hampshire polls, but he’s still behind former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren in many polls of Nevada and South Carolina, and in most national polls. Maybe this will change in the next few weeks, but for now, Buttigieg still isn’t that popular with Democrats, including white Democrats, outside of Iowa and New Hampshire. And Buttigieg, as Politico detailed recently, also has weak support among Latino Democrats, which partly explains his lower numbers in Nevada, where about 20 percent of Democratic caucus voters were Latino in 2016.

In other words, Buttigieg doesn’t have a ton of support overall, and is thus struggling with lots of groups. Late-November surveys from both the Economist/YouGov and Quinnipiac University suggest Buttigieg is relatively weak with voters under 30 and those with incomes below $50,000 a year. “Why are Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire (basically all of whom are white) so enthralled with Pete Buttigieg?” is just as valid a question as “Why are black voters so not enthralled with Pete Buttigieg?”

Of course, this isn’t to say Buttigieg isn’t doing especially badly among black Democrats. He is. In the Quinnipiac survey, Buttigieg is at 23 percent among white Democrats and 4 percent among black Democrats. The Economist/YouGov survey put him at 16 among white Democrats and 2 percent among black Democrats. Which brings me to another obvious challenge for the mayor (and every other candidate) in winning black support: Biden. The former vice president is doing substantially better with black voters than he is overall, getting more than 40 percent of black voters in both the YouGov and Quinnipiac surveys. Buttigieg, I would argue, is going to have a hard time pulling that support from Biden. Older black voters in particular are more familiar with Biden from his time as Barack Obama’s vice president and have a pragmatic streak that may make them reluctant to help nominate a 37-year-old small-town mayor to take on President Trump.

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I worry that political observers are making the same mistake that we did in 2008 and 2016: attributing a candidate’s challenges with black voters to something that candidate is doing wrong (Hillary Clinton in 2008, Sanders in 2016) as opposed to a rival candidate just being more popular with black voters ( Obama in 2008, Clinton in 2016). Maybe black voters, particularly older ones, just really like Biden, at least at this stage in the race.

What about younger black voters, who, according to polling from Morning Consult, aren’t as enamored with Biden? Here, Buttigieg may have more of an ideological problem. Even the recent polls that found Buttigieg surging also showed Sanders and Warren polling ahead of him among black voters. That might be simply because they are better known — and currently have more total support — than the mayor. But there is something of a “black left” that skews young, and it is wary of Buttigieg’s more moderate politics. Buttigieg’s “lane” among white voters — people who might think Sanders and Warren are too liberal but are not comfortable with Biden — may not exist, or may simply be much smaller, with black voters.

Potential problems for Buttigieg

I think the evidence is fairly clear that black Democrats as a group are not as supportive of gay relationships or gay marriage as white Democrats. So, it is plausible that Buttigieg, as an openly gay candidate, starts at a disadvantage among black voters.

So why do I list this a potential reason, as opposed to a clear problem? Well, because I’m not sure that black political behavior is particularly influenced by black views on gay rights. In 2012, there was speculation that Obama would lose sizable support among black voters once he started supporting gay marriage. Not only did that not happen, but African Americans have also remained as supportive of the Democratic Party as ever over the last decade, even as the party has increasingly allied itself with LGBTQ rights. I don’t want to make too much of a local election, but to take one notable example: In April, America’s third-largest city, Chicago, elected Lori Lightfoot, a black lesbian woman, as its mayor. In a runoff, Lightfoot won all of the city’s 50 wards, including those in the city’s heavily black South Side, in her contest against fellow Democrat Toni Preckwinkle, who is also a black woman.

So I think we should be cautious about naming homophobia as a principal factor when assessing why a 37-year-old, white small-town mayor might lose the black Democratic primary vote to Barack Obama’s vice president in a primary where black voters are desperate to find a candidate who they think will defeat Donald Trump. We shouldn’t rule it out, but I wouldn’t give it too much weight. My expectation is that if Buttigieg were nominated, he would get around 90 percent of the black vote in a general election, as Democratic presidential nominees typically do.

Another potential problem Buttigieg faces in winning black support: a lack of backing from prominent black figures. The New York Times recently published a piece showing that Buttigieg trails way behind other candidates in terms of endorsements from current or former black elected officials. (According to the Times, Biden has 154 such endorsements, Kamala Harris has 93, Sanders 91, Cory Booker 50, and Warren 43, compared to six for Buttigieg.) Would it help Buttigieg if he had more support among black elites, to signal to black voters that he is a candidate who cares about their interests? Probably. That said, Harris has a lot of endorsements from prominent black figures, and she also has weak numbers among black voters (7 percent, per the YouGov survey).

There are other potential causes for Buttigieg’s lack of black support — ones I wouldn’t ascribe much explanatory value to. Some black leaders, for instance, both nationally and in South Bend, have criticized Buttigieg’s dealings with his city’s black residents, particularly his demoting South Bend’s first-ever black police chief in 2012. Liberals, black and non-black, are also criticizing Buttigieg’s presidential campaign for weaknesses in its approach to black outreach. For example, the campaign put out a list of supporters for Buttigieg’s “Douglass Plan for Black America” that included lots of white Democrats, as well as a number of African Americans who said they have not endorsed the proposal or Buttigieg.

Neither of these narratives are good for Buttigieg, because they play into some of the problems that I listed above. They will probably make decidedly liberal black voters who were not likely to back Buttigieg in the first place even more wary of him. And if you are a black elected official who is considering endorsing the mayor, these stories might give you pause.

But I doubt a ton of rank-and-file voters of any race are following these kinds of stories in detail. I think it’s more likely that Buttigieg’s struggles with black voters in polls gives these stories more resonance, as opposed to the stories causing Buttigieg’s problems with black voters.

For right now, though, whatever the cause, Buttigieg’s lack of support among black voters is a huge hurdle for his campaign. If the race winnows to just Biden and Buttigieg, for example, I think Buttigieg could lose the black vote by more than 50 points like Sanders did in 2016, killing his chances of winning the nomination.

Alternatively, there are two potential positive scenarios for Buttigieg. First, maybe three or four candidates (say Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren) remain viable through much of the primary season, dividing up the black vote so Biden is not getting 80 percent of it. Secondly, maybe Buttigieg’s efforts to appeal to black voters pay off in the next few months and his numbers rise. He’s working hard on this front; for example, he made an appearance at the North Carolina church of black civil rights activist William Barber on Sunday. If the race comes down to Buttigieg vs. Biden, the South Bend mayor may have some appeal among black liberals who are particularly wary of the former vice president.

But that really gets at the bottom line for Buttigieg — and every other candidate besides Biden — with regards to black voters: It may not be that black voters hate Pete Buttigieg, really, but rather that they like Joe Biden. Unless that changes, a lot of candidates will struggle to gain meaningful black support.

Moreover, with the field so divided — this isn’t 2016, when Hillary Clinton was polling at or above 50 percent nationally for most of the race — most candidates, including Buttigieg, will be doing poorly with one group or another; if you have only about a quarter of the vote overall, there’s really no way around that. A candidate’s issue may not lie with any single group, but with their strength overall.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.