For Buttigieg, a Search for Black Support That Never Arrived

SUMTER, S.C. — In October, Pete Buttigieg said he would do better with South Carolina’s black voters once they got to know him better.

When he came back in December, he was still working on introducing himself to the black electorate.

And in late January he admitted he was scared that at his rallies in South Carolina, where 60 percent of the Democratic electorate is black, most attendees were white.

Those fears were borne out on Saturday, when Mr. Buttigieg was trounced in South Carolina’s primary and earned just two percent of the vote from African-Americans, according to early exit polling.

What support he received came mostly from young black voters; he appeared to have barely any votes from African-Americans who are 60 and older, according to the exit polling. Black voters decisively backed former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who won the primary; Senator Bernie Sanders and the hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer drew low double-digit support from African-Americans.

The showing dispelled the argument that the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., made for months when asked about his dismal showing in polls of black voters — that winning performances among white Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire would give a more diverse set of voters permission to believe in a 38-year-old most of them had never heard of a year ago.

“I just wish we had another month,” said J.A. Moore, a state representative from North Charleston who two weeks ago became the first black South Carolina state lawmaker to endorse Mr. Buttigieg. “If he’d been able to camp out here like he did in Iowa, I think the outcome would be a lot more favorable.”

Mr. Buttigieg’s showing here wasn’t for a lack of trying. He spent more money on South Carolina television advertising, $2.5 million, than any anyone other than Mr. Steyer, whose campaign spent millions on black businesses, staff members and political operatives. No candidate spent more days campaigning in South Carolina during the 2020 cycle than Mr. Buttigieg.

None of it worked.

By the end, Mr. Buttigieg’s senior aides and allies admitted he never really had much hope of doing well here. Going up early on television, which boosted his standing in Iowa, didn’t help Mr. Buttigieg when he began airing ads here in December. (His team wasn’t doing much polling of South Carolina so it couldn’t be sure what was working and what wasn’t.)

His aides said they viewed his South Carolina visits as more of a demonstration of Mr. Buttigieg’s effort to reach black voters — something key to his electability argument with white voters in Iowa and elsewhere — than something that could have led to a better result in Saturday’s primary.

They admitted Mr. Buttigieg never had a chance to compete with the decades of relationships with black voters — especially older black voters — established by Mr. Biden, the cash infusion from Mr. Steyer or even the groundwork from Mr. Sanders, the democratic socialist who after losing the 2016 primary by nearly 48 points to Hillary Clinton spent the next three years visiting the state.

The looming question facing Mr. Buttigieg after the dispiriting South Carolina finish: Can he do better with black voters elsewhere?

Michael Halle, Mr. Buttigieg’s senior strategist, said the campaign’s Super Tuesday strategy relies on hitting the 15 percent threshold to win delegates in as many congressional districts as possible. Running up big numbers in districts gerrymandered to include large numbers of voters of color, Mr. Halle said, would be less valuable than remaining viable in other rural districts filled with white voters.

Black officials who have endorsed Mr. Buttigieg said he’s made key inroads for a future presidential run.

“I don’t think this will be the last time Pete is running in South Carolina,” said Mayor Mark Barbee of Bridgeport, Pa. “He’s making the right decision to introduce himself to the people.”

Sean Shaw, a former Florida state representative, spent the weekend campaigning for Mr. Buttigieg before black voters in Arkansas. “I don’t have an answer other than he’s trying, he’s got to keep trying,” Mr. Shaw said. “He’s kind of come out of nowhere and has had to work harder to get his name out. He’s just got to keep at it.”

Mr. Buttigieg’s hopes that winning Iowa would beget winning elsewhere were foiled when the big news coming out of Iowa was the meltdown of the state’s caucuses rather than him eking out the narrowest of victories over Mr. Sanders — a contest that didn’t get certified by the Iowa Democratic Party until Saturday afternoon.

Mr. Buttigieg didn’t get to bask in the glow he expected from winning Iowa. The rush of new campaign contributions never came. On Feb. 20, two weeks after Iowa, Mr. Buttigieg told supporters he needed to raise $13 million by Super Tuesday to “stay competitive.” On Friday his campaign manager wrote in an email solicitation that Mr. Buttigieg was “more than halfway” toward that goal.

By the end of the South Carolina campaign, Mr. Buttigieg was trying to introduce himself to black voters at the same time he was making a closing argument to the state’s white voters.

In Greenville on Thursday, he sat for a round table on health inequities with nine black community leaders. There was no audience other than the three dozen members of the news media who attended.

A few hours later in Rock Hill, a Charlotte, N.C., suburb, Mr. Buttigieg rallied a crowd of several hundred inside a gymnasium. The audience was almost exclusively white, aside for a group of out-of-state pro-charter school parents backed by conservative organizations.

“I got here and I was like, ‘Are there any more of us here?’ I can’t see anybody,” said Sidney Echevarria, a black woman from Belmont, N.C., who served as an alternate delegate for President Obama at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. “I think the problem is people still don’t know who he is.”

Mr. Buttigieg kicked off the day before the primary with another monochrome campaign stop in Charleston, S.C. Sitting up front was Phyllis Johnson, an African-American Air Force retiree who said she admired Mr. Buttigieg’s youth, military service and his eloquent manner of speaking.

But she too expressed dismay with the demographics of the crowd.

“He has come here a lot, he is making the effort. That tells me he cares,” she said. “But I’m looking around now and don’t see anyone else black. You see people that can afford to take a day off from work. Not everybody can.”

Later Friday Mr. Buttigieg stopped in Sumter for what his campaign billed as a “community conversation on environmental justice.” Aides placed a two-page summary of Mr. Buttigieg’s Douglass Plan for black empowerment on each of the 100 chairs. But when the audience arrived, it was almost entirely white in a county that is 48 percent black.

“I feel like he’s got a fresh appeal,” said Erik Himes, a white high school orchestra teacher from Sumter who sat waiting for Mr. Buttigieg. The Douglass Plan summary had slipped off his chair onto the ground beneath his chair. “He has that vibe like Obama.”

Mr. Himes said he was unfamiliar with the details of Douglass Plan.

On the final days of his Iowa campaign, Mr. Buttigieg took the stage after rousing introductions by local black surrogates including Quentin Hart, the African-American mayor of Waterloo, Iowa. But in South Carolina, aside from Mr. Moore, who had to tend to his catering business during the day, the opening speakers were either white or imported from out of state.

James L. “Bubba” Cromer Jr., a white former South Carolina state representative, delivered a spirited introduction for Mr. Buttigieg at his closing rally Friday night in Columbia. Afterward, Mr. Cromer said Mr. Buttigieg never had a chance to compete for black votes with the relationships long established by Mr. Biden, the resources of Mr. Steyer or the excitement around Mr. Sanders.

“There’s a silent majority for him,” Mr. Cromer said. “They’re just not African-American voters.”

Reid J. Epstein reported from Sumter, Rock Hill and Charleston, S.C., and Trip Gabriel reported from Richmond, Va.

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