• Ryan O'Connell

Buttigieg Steps Up His Game...But Can He Bridge the Racial Divide?

October 17, 2019

Mayor Pete Buttigieg is on a roll. He has raised $51 million, putting him in the same league with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Buttigieg gave a strong, punchy performance during the fourth Democratic debate on October 15, and he is very popular among coastal elite types. The question is: can he broaden his base and siphon off many of Joe Biden’s supporters?

Buttigieg is a gifted politician. He’s young, dynamic, eloquent, and he is moderate. As Joe Biden continues to stumble, and Kamala Harris jumps down one rabbit hole after another, Buttigieg is becoming an attractive alternative for Democrats who consider Warren and Sanders too far to the left.

That is, moderate, white Democrats.

Winning Black Support is Crucial

Buttigieg has gained very little traction among black voters. This is a key obstacle that Mayor Pete has to overcome. Otherwise, he could remain a niche candidate. African-Americans represent 20% of Democrats, so they are a key constituency. It is critical for the Democrats that African-Americans show up to vote in 2020. As Hillary Clinton learned to her chagrin, low turnout among black voters can spell the difference between winning and losing in several states.

Furthermore, blacks cast 60% of the votes in the Democratic primary in South Carolina. That’s the third contest, after Iowa and New Hampshire, and a key test for Presidential candidates. So far, according to polls, Joe Biden has South Carolina sewn up, with 43% of voters likely to choose him. Still, that could change over the coming months, if the former VP continues to falter.

Despite his gifts, so far Mayor Pete is stuck in the mid-digits in the polls, on a national basis. (That’s before his stand-out performance in the latest debate.) His lack of support from black Democrats is a major factor.

Thanks to his ample funding, Buttigieg has as many field offices in Iowa as Elizabeth Warren does. He also enjoys respectable poll numbers in Iowa, where he is ranked #4, at 14%. However, Iowa is a predominantly white state and it is relatively close to Indiana, which helps to boost Buttigieg’s name recognition.

In South Carolina, by contrast, Mayor Pete has a negligible staff presence. His poll numbers there are weak, at about 4%.

Whipping Up the Crowd in New York

Mayor Pete’s appeal, and his challenges, were vividly on display at a rally in New York City that I attended on Friday, October 11. The event took place at the Manhattan Center, a large, cavernous concert hall near Penn Station. The standing-room-only group waited patiently about two hours for Mayor Pete to speak. As a rough guess, I would estimate the crowd was 1,500-2,000; the hall was packed.

The candidate has star power and the gift of oratory, like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Up close, Buttigieg has a warm persona, piercing blue eyes and a dazzling smile, which he can turn on and off at will. The mayor is not very tall, at about 5‘ 9”, but he radiates energy.

When Mayor Pete enters a room, you can feel the electricity in the air. Buttigieg gave a rousing speech, whipping up the crowd. He did not use notes or a lectern; he roamed freely around the stage.

Buttigieg’s message was mostly positive, upbeat and forward-looking. Unlike Sanders and Warren, he did not thunder about “corruption” and a “rigged system”. Instead, Mayor Pete spoke enthusiastically about tackling climate change and gun control. He emphasized his desire to unify Americans rather than pit them against each other, in a clear swipe at Trump.

Connecting with Millennials, Using Humor

Buttigieg spoke for about 25 minutes and then conducted an extensive Q&A session with the audience. Several questions were light-hearted, and Buttigieg displayed a keen sense of humor and an easy rapport with other members of his generation.

When he was asked, “What is your favorite Beatles song?”, he hesitated for a moment. Then he said, “Let’s go with ‘Come Together’, that seems to fit in with tonight’s theme”.

The moderator asked, “Who’s your favorite hip-hop artist?” Buttigieg replied, “I’m not an expert on hip-hop, but I have to say that I like listening to Kanye in the gym”. When some in the audience groaned, Buttigieg flashed a smile and said, “I know, the politics are not great…but these things are complicated”. (Kanye West, a Trump supporter, recently posed for some fawning pictures with the President in the White House.)

The audience laughed. Now, try to imagine how Donald Trump or Joe Biden would answer that question.

Opening Up the Democratic Party...

Another part of Buttigieg’s appeal to voters reflects his sincere belief that the Democratic Party should take back some ground it has conceded to the Republicans. “Why should only one party have a monopoly on patriotism?”, he asked the crowd, as he talked proudly about his military service in Afghanistan.

Buttigieg also spoke about the crucial role that his faith has played in his life; he is a devout Episcopalian. Those remarks did not trigger a wave of applause from the young, probably highly secular crowd of New Yorkers. However, Buttigieg’s religious values will resonate with many Americans. He is performing an important service in this respect, since many progressive Democrats have tended to disparage religious people.

Buttigieg is opening up the Party in another direction, of course, as the first openly gay candidate for President. This has helped him in this early stage of his campaign, as he has attracted strong financial support from the LBGTQ community. The crowd on Friday night was an eclectic NYC mix, as one would expect, but a large percentage was LBGTQ.

By coincidence, it was National Coming Out Day. During the Q&A session, one audience member asked Buttigieg about his decision to reveal that he was gay. The mayor spoke simply and movingly about his first date with Chasten (now his husband), a guy with “big glasses and a big smile”.

The crowd in NYC roared with approval…but how would that story go over in Indianapolis? Are Americans in flyover country ready to accept a gay President and a First Guy in the White House? Mayor Pete has emphasized that after he came out, he was re-elected by a huge margin. That is reassuring, but the voters in South Bend already knew him well.

Mayor Pete Takes a Question in NYC

...But Few Blacks in the Audience

Here's another challenge: the audience was mostly young, single and white. There were very few African-Americans in the auditorium...even though New York has a large black population.

Mayor Pete and his staff are keenly aware that he has to garner more support from blacks and Latinos. In an astute move, they chose as the moderator for the Q&A session a black female doctor from the Bronx. They even scored a two-fer; the doctor told the audience that she had grown up in Cuba before emigrating to the U.S.

At the end of the Q&A session, the doctor spoke to Buttigieg in Spanish, thanking him for his focus on health issues. Buttigieg did not reply in Spanish, although he speaks the language. Maybe he did not want to pull a Beto O’Rourke, since the Texan has been ridiculed for speaking Spanish (mas o menos) during the debates.

In any case, it was great political theater, and it could only help Buttigieg boost his standing with blacks and Latinos. If Mayor Pete can successfully reach out to those communities, he may have a fair shot at the White House. A lot of Democrats are still searching for the right candidate.

The Wall Street Democrat

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