Pete Buttigieg has one huge and glaring problem in his struggle to win the Democratic presidential nomination: he has no support among African-American voters, who will play a decisive role in choosing the nominee.
In an effort clearly aimed at courting black voter support, Buttigieg unveiled on Thursday a “Douglass Plan” to alleviate the nation’s racial disparities. The plan calls for establishing a $10 billion fund for black entrepreneurs over five years, investing $25 billion in historically black colleges and universities, as well, as a host of health, education, and voting-rights reforms advocated by a broad array of liberal and conservative social activists.
Buttigieg has raised an impressive campaign war chest, drawn praise for his performance in the first Democratic debate, and ranks among the top-tier candidates in nationwide polls for the party’s nomination. Still, so far he has generated little to interest from black voters across the country. Indeed, as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Buttigieg has struggled to garner much support even from black voters in his hometown, amid longstanding tensions between police and community leaders.
Henry Davis, Jr., a former South Bend city council member who lost to Buttigieg in the 2015 mayoral primary, told POLITICO that black residents often feel the mayor talks down to them.
“Because he’s the smartest guy in the room, he’s gonna tell you that what you believe is true is not factual, and that his study and his understanding of it is better than yours,” Davis said in a recent interview.
Others in South Bend say Buttigieg’s handling of police issues in the city left them feeling that he wasn’t concerned enough about abuses in black neighborhoods. Protests erupted in the city last month following an incident in which a white police officer shot and killed a black man, forcing Buttigieg to cut short campaign activities and return home to calm community anger.
At a community meeting, where tempers flared repeatedly, Buttigieg admitted he’d failed to do a good enough job at recruiting black and other minority police officers during his two terms as mayor.
“I couldn’t get it done,” he said apologetically, an admission he also made last month on the stage of the first Democratic presidential debates.
Nevertheless, Buttigieg’s plan to “dismantle racist structures and systems” focuses primarily on criminal justice measures, the area where black voters at home and across the nation appear to be most skeptical of his presidential aspirations.
His Douglass Plan proposals are deliberately named to link his campaign with the noted black abolitionist Frederick Douglass and to echo the U.S. investment of approximately $100 billion to rebuild Europe following World War II.
In them, Buttigieg calls for elimination of federal incarcerations for drug possession and reducing sentences for many low-level drug offenses; legalization of marijuana use and possession at the federal level; limiting solitary confinement in federal prisons; abolishing the death penalty and minimum sentencing requirements.
Buttigieg’s plan also would address police misconduct on the federal level, offering solutions that go beyond what he’s been able to implement as South Bend’s mayor.
His plan calls for stronger measures and standards for police to use deadly force and would create a federal database of officers fired from local police departments. It would also encourage local officials to more broadly share information about police misconduct with police departments across the nation.
Appearing on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” Buttigieg rejected arguments that his proposal would be too expensive or difficult to accomplish.
“I don’t know where we got the idea that it’s impossible to do these things,” he told host Rachel Martin. “This is a country that changed the Constitution so you couldn’t buy a drink and then changed its mind and changed it back. Are you really telling me that we are incapable of using one of the most elegant features of our constitutional system?”
Critics say the boldly ambitious and expensive set of proposals may not be enough to salvage his campaign among skeptical black voters. A CNN poll of 1,613 adults reached on landlines or cell phones by a live interviewer last month shortly after the first Democratic debate found that 1% of non-white respondents said they supported Buttigieg’s campaign; POLITICO further crunched the numbers to report that Buttigieg’s support among black voters was a flat zero percent.
More recently, the Morning Consult weekly tracking poll, conducted July 1-7, showed Buttigieg with 2% support among black voters nationwide. Such a paltry showing among black voters stands in stark contrast to his campaign’s report of a whopping $24.8 million in national fundraising during the past three months.
In his NPR interview, conducted to coincide with the release of his racial proposals, Buttigieg stressed that he can win black voters over with his Douglass Plan.
“If you’re a white candidate, it is twice as important for you to be talking about racial inequity and not just describing the problem — which is fashionable in politics — but actually talking about what we’re going to do about it and describing the outcomes we’re trying to solve for,” he said.