In mostly white Iowa, Pete Buttigieg confronts worry about his lack of support among African Americans

As he seeks the Democratic presidential nomination, Buttigieg’s ongoing struggles to attract African American voters nationally have reached into Iowa, even though African Americans make up a tiny percent of caucus participants.

Among the largely white audiences Buttigieg attracts are voters who worry that the former South Bend, Ind., mayor may face irreparable political weakness as the campaign moves into more diverse, later-voting states.

Monday’s caucuses here will be the first overall test for Buttigieg, who in recent weeks has faced repeated questions about whether his lack of popularity among black voters would hurt his ability to energize the Democratic base if he is the nominee taking on President Trump.

Those concerns have been reflected in multiple other ways. Earlier this month, Black Lives Matter protesters followed him around Iowa, handing out to voters information critical of him and interrupting one of his events. On Tuesday, less than a week before the Feb. 3 caucuses, he was pressed for answers after multiple news outlets published stories suggesting people of color within his own campaign do not always feel heard or prioritized.

Buttigieg has risen from little-known Midwestern mayor to credible presidential candidate largely via Iowa and New Hampshire, two largely white states where mostly white crowds flock to see him in traditionally Democratic and Republican districts alike.

His inability to diversify his support and dodge race-related controversy has always threatened to deflate his candidacy as soon as more diverse states begin casting votes. But the skepticism that has greeted him in Iowa suggests he could pay a price even earlier among some voters here.

A recent Washington Post poll showed Buttigieg with 2 percent support nationally among black voters, without whose support no nominee has succeeded in the modern era.

“I’m humbled by the challenge of making sure that we connect, especially with voters who have every reason to be skeptical. I’m also honored by the support that we have had both at the voter level and at the leadership level, particularly in the Midwest, here in Iowa, here in my own community,” Buttigieg said Tuesday when asked if he is frustrated by his campaign’s struggles to build trust with black voters. “But [I] recognize that we’ve got to do the work to extend that to the South. Alongside demonstrating that, we have what it takes to organize and win.”

Buttigieg’s ability to handle racial issues emerged as a presidential campaign issue when a white police officer shot a black man named Eric Logan in South Bend last summer, months after Buttigieg entered the race. The incident shoved Buttigieg’s talking points about the successes of his eight-year mayoral tenure into the background, and persistent criticisms about racial inequities in South Bend’s police department and elsewhere to the forefront.

Logan’s death also spawned increased activism from South Bend’s chapter of Black Lives Matter, which began to protest him regularly. Members of that group chanted critiques of his record so loudly when he recently visited a homeless shelter in Los Angeles that Buttigieg’s campaign staff had to move an event inside.

A few days later, during a blizzard in Des Moines, other members of the group interrupted a Buttigieg town hall by faking a medical emergency to get the candidate’s attention. A day later, they showed up to an event a half-hour or so outside Des Moines but were asked not to come in or hand out fliers.

“The more and more I see what’s happening in South Bend, something is wrong,” said Emmanuel Cannady, a 36-year-old graduate student at the University of Notre Dame who was in the group that followed Buttigieg around Iowa. “And I was like, this is a man had all that opportunity in such a small city to make changes, to make something better for people. And yet when I walk around neighborhoods and I see a tale of two different South Bends, and I think he could have done something about it.”

Cannady said voters came up to him and his colleagues after their protests in Des Moines and asked for more information, or to hear what they had to say.

Their message — or at least the idea that Buttigieg might alienate rather than attract black voters — seems to be resonating more and more in Iowa after about a year of campaigning in which he had largely been insulated from those questions here.

A few hours after the white man in Vinton on Monday questioned Buttigieg’s poll numbers with African Americans, an organizer read questions submitted by a crowd of 900 or so outside Cedar Rapids. One of them was about what he was doing “to earn the African American vote?”

In response to such questions, Buttigieg explains that he knows he has a long way to go with black voters. He contends he has the highest support among black voters who know him best — although a recent Washington Post-Ipsos poll of African American voters showed he had 3 percent support among those who say they know him. He touts his Douglass Plan to root out systemic racism in America. And he explains that the best way to prove himself to voters in those communities is to show he can win, and his best chance to show them that is with a strong showing in Iowa.

Buttigieg has secured more black endorsements of late, including his new campaign co-chair Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.) and Waterloo, Iowa, Mayor Quentin Hart, both of whom have campaigned on his behalf around this state. In an interview Sunday, Hart called Buttigieg’s Douglass Plan “one of the boldest plans I’ve seen” and praised the small-group meetings Buttigieg has held with local leaders in an effort to build trust.

But nationally, that trust has been slower to develop, and some of his moves during the campaign have complicated his standing. Last year, for example, his campaign scheduled a Chicago fundraiser co-hosted by Steve Patton, a lawyer who had worked to block the release of footage of the 2014 police shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald. The campaign later refunded Patton’s donations and barred him from the event.

“My understanding is that was the result of a miscommunication, and as soon as it came to my attention, we acted immediately,” Buttigieg said, surrounded by reporters in a gym in Ottumwa on Tuesday where 180 or so potential voters, most of them white, had just watched him deliver his usual remarks. He also fielded half a dozen questions about multiple stories that detailed frustration among staffers of color in his campaign who felt they were not always heard.

“I want everyone on our team to know that I’m proud of them, that I’m thankful for them and that I support them. It’s one of the reasons why we’ve taken steps that may not be something that is typical or has happened a lot before in presidential campaigns to try to empower staffers at all levels, to be able to speak to their experiences, to raise concerns and to have these tough conversations,” Buttigieg said.

On Tuesday, the campaign outlined in a Medium post its efforts to create diversity within its ranks. The Post touted the fact that 40 percent of the campaign’s senior staff and 46 percent of senior leadership and department heads identify as nonwhite. It explained that the campaign held diversity and inclusion trainings last May — long before questions about Buttigieg and race began to boil up so frequently — and December, and in each of the early states.

Buttigieg wouldn’t say whether he had addressed frustrated campaign staffers directly and said “there are no easy answers” to explain why the campaign’s efforts to empower a diverse set of voices left some still feeling unheard. Asked whether he is frustrated that many people don’t seem to understand the message he is trying to send to voters of color, Buttigieg demurred.

“I don’t think the biggest thing to be worried about is, is whether it’s frustrating for me,” Buttigieg said. “My job is to work through all of the challenges and all the frustrations that come with the big, big changes we’re trying to make.”

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