With the Iowa caucuses just two weeks and change away, Pete Buttigieg is making his stand in the Hawkeye State and the biggest question on the mind of his supporters isn't "How does he beat Trump in the general" but "Why don't black Democratic primary voters love him?"
The white voters who come to Pete Buttigieg's rallies just don't understand.
Many of them fell for the 37-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, the first time they heard him speak: his calm demeanor, his intelligence, the way he seemed to appeal to progressives and moderates alike.
But his support among Democratic-leaning black voters nationally is stuck in the abysmally low single digits.
“I don’t understand that,” said Bill Koeneig, a physician in Des Moines who said Buttigieg is one of his top choices in the first-in-the-nation caucuses.
“I don’t understand it,” said Julie Walstrom, a retired teacher in Perry, Iowa, who is deciding between Buttigieg, former vice president Joe Biden, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
“I don’t understand what that issue could possibly be,” said Doug Gardner, a retired sales worker in Urbandale.
In nearly two dozen interviews across Iowa this month, white voters struggled to reconcile their affection for Buttigieg with how black voters see the candidate. Some said it simply didn’t matter to them. Many more had been grappling with how to think about the disconnect and Buttigieg’s challenges: Some were worried, others frustrated.
But not a single person considering Buttigieg said it would affect their vote in the caucuses, which are nearly two weeks away.
“That’s not my battle to fight,” said Gardner.
Buttigieg is among the frontrunners in Iowa and New Hampshire, the two mostly white states that play an outsize role in deciding the presidential nomination as the first two states to vote. But his standing is lower nationally. In South Carolina, a key early-voting state because of its large black population, Buttigieg has frequently pulled 0% among black voters.
The vast majority of white Iowa voters said they’d heard about Buttigieg’s difficulties with voters of color. Many had heard, particularly, of his record in South Bend, where he was criticized for his handling of police relations and housing issues in communities of color.
“I think it’s partly because of the incident that happened in South Bend,” said Sue Seidenfeld, a retired physician assistant in Waukee who said she was undecided in the race and had come to see Buttigieg in Winterset. She did not specify the incident.
“I think that maybe that black voters feel like he wasn’t as empathetic as he could have been, and as on top of the situation as he should have been,” she said. “Which is kind of a shame — because he has to be impartial, and he has to take some time to see what really the facts were, and I think people are too quick to judge sometimes.”
She paused and added: “But maybe not, you know. There may be something to it.”
Still, Seidenfeld said, it wasn’t an issue that was going to affect her vote either way. She thought Buttigieg was “more empathetic to minorities than a lot of people. I also think, for what it’s worth, that it’s a shame that people think that Iowa shouldn’t be the first [caucus] in the nation. Because after all, we were the first to go for Barack Obama.”
Let me answer the question for the folks in Iowa. Three answers, actually.
1) The number one priority for black voters like myself is getting rid of Trump. It's not just a matter of politics, it's a matter of survival. He hurts us daily. Trump and his base are doing everything they can to erase Barack Obama's legacy and memory from this country, and along with it all the executive decisions and government agency programs and departmental memos that Obama issued to help us. All those are going away and his base cheers that on. White voters in Iowa will survive a second Trump term. Black voters will continue to suffer grievous harm from it.
So when we ask Pete "Hey, are you going to bring back the Obama-era policies that we need, are you going to get rid of the federal government's systemic hostility towards black and brown folk" he responds with "That's on the list" like great, like he doesn't want to upset the white people voting for him, especially the ones that say "Well, frankly, all lives matter!" because he knows Clinton's support for Black Lives Matter hurt her in the Midwest. Clinton at least had the courage to go down swinging and not assume we would support her.
2) There are some real issues with the South Bend PD and Pete's relationship with it and black residents in the city. The story of how Pete badly handled examples of overt racism in the city government when he was Mayor doesn't fill anyone with confidence. This story has dogged him for eight months now and he has yet to actually respond to it in any meaningful way, in fact over and over again in interviews and in his own book, he's responded with "I didn't know".
Again, he's had months to respond to the criticism of this (and not all of it is fair criticism against him) and he's chosen to ignore it or to profess ignorance. It doesn't make black folk willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because we've all dealt with white folk in positions of power like this who say they are our friends, but act like we don't matter.
3) Iowa has a four percent black population. It's nowhere near representative of the country. questions of why a state with a small fraction of black voters is the most important state in the nation when it comes to deciding a Democratic presidential candidate aside, Pete has sunk all of his resources into the state and is ignoring the most more representative SC. You know who thinks SC matters? Joe Biden. Obama's VP. The guy who stood by Obama for eight years.
Biden has earned the loyalty of black voters because he was there for us and still is. Yes, he made some terrible calls 40 years ago in his Senate career. He made some terrible calls when he was running in 2008. But Barack Obama trusted him, and it was a great choice, and I trust him too. Iowa is not representative of America and Iowa voters acting insulted that somebody wouldn't pick their candidate i not the way to get people to pick your candidate.
Pete has a long, long way to go, frankly.