Primary Colors: Pete’s test

In the final months of 2019, media narratives describing the presidential primaries were consistent and simple: Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were battling to be the progressive standard bearer taking on the Goliath moderate former Vice President Joe Biden, who was being distantly trailed in his own “lane” by former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar. Now that the first two primary contests have taken place, the new dynamics are clear. Sanders is the man to beat. Klobuchar caught fire at just the right moment. Warren is fading, and fast. Biden is on the ropes but might be saved by his black support in South Carolina. And the moderate 38-year-old former Mayor of South Bend, Ind., is punching above his weight. But can he really last?

I am being completely honest when I say I, in early 2019, never thought Pete Buttigieg had a chance. I thought he would end up in the low single digits in Iowa with the potential to last until New Hampshire before gracefully bowing out with an elevated profile and the opportunity to challenge Senator Todd Young (R-IN) in 2022. But — buoyed by money from high-dollar fundraisers and media adulation — Buttigieg surprised me. Biden’s consistently unimpressive debate performances coupled with Buttigieg’s schmooze and ability to sell himself to dozens of America’s billionaires (who see politics as a betting man’s game) brought him to second place in New Hampshire and a single-delegate lead in Iowa. 

Buttigieg is undeniably running on Barack Obama’s 2008 playbook: optimism without realism, rhetoric without specificity and generational change without meaningful experience. I’ll admit that he has the slickness of a veteran candidate, but he lacks two critical demographics in his quest for the Democratic nomination: support from people of color and support from young Americans

When questioned about Buttigieg’s lack of support among black Americans in South Carolina, a surfaced campaign memo suggested that “being gay was a barrier” to his support with black voters. This explanation, however, is overly simplistic. Mayor Pete’s real problems with the black community are of his own making: firing South Bend’s first black police chief, gentrifying black and Latinx neighborhoods in his city and fraudulently claiming black support for his “Douglass Plan.” As the Nevada caucuses linger at the end of this week and the all-important South Carolina primary looms in the weeks ahead, Buttigieg has shown little progress in gaining support from people of color in the next two contests.

In 2008, Obama trailed Hillary Clinton in South Carolina until he won the Iowa caucuses and showed nervous black voters that he really could win. In the general election against John McCain later that year, Obama won 95% of the black vote. In 2016, Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump could be attributed to low turnout among black individuals in critical states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida and Ohio. 

In short, the black vote can make or break any Democrat vying to be president, and considering Buttigieg’s lack of support from the black community, his candidacy is likely doomed if serious changes are not made.