INDIANOLA, Iowa—If you ask undecided caucus-goers at Pete Buttigieg’s town halls across Iowa why they’re thinking of supporting the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, you often get the same response: He’s smart, stupid.
“He’s someone who can complete a full sentence,” said Deanna Carson at a town hall in Osceola.
“He’s quite young, but still, he’s very intelligent,” said June Schindler in Ottumwa.
“I think he’s very, very smart—you don’t get a Rhodes Scholarship for being less than that,” an 80-year-old caucus-goer said in Indianola.
But if you ask those same undecided caucus-goers why they’re still not ready to commit, you often get a different response: Why is his support so white?
“It is a concern! It is a concern about the South—can he win in the south? Can he win the black vote?” said Schindler. “It’s a concern.”
“It gives me a little pause, yes, some,” said the 80-year-old, who declined to give his name because he didn’t want “my townhome egged or my car scratched.”
For caucus-goers in a state where more than 90 percent of the people are white, confidence in Buttigieg’s ability to build the kind of diverse coalition required to win the Democratic nomination—much less the White House—has been shaken by his consistently terrible polling numbers among African-American voters. A recent Washington Post/Ipsos poll showed the former mayor winning a mere 2 percent among black Democratic-leaning registered voters, the same percentage of respondents who said that they would simply not vote at all.
Even Buttigieg’s strongest supporters are worried that, short of presumptuously announcing a well-liked running mate of color, time may be running out to win those voters over.
“By having maybe Harris or Booker, you know, that might help him,” said José Pulido, who works at a meatpacking plant in Ottumwa and will be Buttigieg’s caucus chair next week. “You know, balancing the ticket—it might be perfect.”
For months, Buttigieg’s campaign has responded to that anemic support by pointing to his low name recognition, particularly compared to former Vice President Joe Biden, and promising that black voters would warm to him once they got to know him and his policies. But with mere days to go before the Iowa caucuses, members of Buttigieg’s own campaign team have grown distressed by lingering issues relating to race; even diehard supporters are growing concerned that his difficulties with minority support amounts to an un-clearable hurdle to electability.
Those concerns were compounded on Tuesday with twin stories, one from the Wall Street Journal and another from the New York Times, outlining a campaign staff frustrated with the campaign’s approach to diversity, as well as unforced errors on issues relating to race. Staff tasked with vetting potential fundraisers told the Times of their concerns about a would-be co-chair who had once worked to hide a video depicting the police shooting of an unarmed teenage boy. Steve Patton, a former Chicago city attorney who pushed to withhold video depicting the death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald until after a contentious mayoral runoff election, was eventually dropped from the fundraiser after public backlash.
Other minority staffers described familiar and social anxiety in working for a candidate whose struggles with black support are so conspicuous, as well as resulting difficulties in recruiting and keeping a diverse campaign staff when easily avoided missteps—like putting the image of a Kenyan woman on the campaign’s page for racial reconciliation—are so public.
Alexis Gonzaludo, a national investment associate, told the Times that it was “a shock, but not a surprise” that the campaign’s hiring database is “just like, a bunch of white dudes.”
Meanwhile, Buttigieg has made wooing “future former Republicans” the centerpiece of his final days in Iowa, visiting a half-dozen counties that voted for President Barack Obama in 2012 but flipped, sometimes dramatically, to support President Donald Trump in 2016. Speaking in Clarke County (which swung more than 10 points to the right between 2012 and 2016) Buttigieg told the audience about the importance of electing a president who lives “within jogging distance” of the nearest cornfield.
“This campaign is calling out to Democrats, calling out to independents, and finding an awful lot of what I like to call future former Republicans who are maybe not gonna agree on everything, but are equally fed up with where we are,” Buttigieg said in Osceola.
The line drew some chuckles, but some potential supporters told The Daily Beast that Buttigieg might be focusing on building the wrong kind of diverse coalition.
“I’ve talked to some guys that voted for Trump and they’re leaning, you know, for somebody [on the Democratic side], but not Pete,” said Pulido. “Hopefully people will get on board and vote Democratic whoever the nominee is.”
But few presidential candidates could hope to peel off enough Trump supporters to compensate for the deficit Buttigieg faces with black voters, a bedrock Democratic constituency that stuck with the party even as suburban whites abandoned it in droves in 2016.
Buttigieg was contrite when asked about the campaign’s missteps on racial issues and personnel, telling reporters after a town hall in Ottumwa that “my heart is with anyone who seeks to step up to form part of this multiracial team.”
“People of color in this campaign… have had to deal with all of the complications that come with being in a workplace, as any American workplace does, that reminds you of race and of difference all the time,” Buttigieg said, “on top of doing a job that's already so hard.”
Other candidates have made increasingly frequent references to Buttigieg’s weaknesses among black voters, a critical component of the litmus test of electability for all of the Democratic presidential candidates. Asked on Tuesday about the concerns among his supporters about what happens beyond Iowa—the population of which is less than 4 percent black—Buttigieg notably did not return to his campaign’s long-repeated claim that the issue was simply rooted in name recognition.
“I’m humbled by the challenge of making sure that we connect, especially with voters who have every reason to be skeptical,” Buttigieg said, adding that he was still “honored” by the support from black voters and political leaders that he has mustered.
One such supporter, Michelle Daniels, a young black woman from upstate New York, traveled nearly a thousand miles from home to see Buttigieg address a crowded room of potential caucus-goers, and to thank the presidential hopeful for his much-touted “Douglass Plan” for racial reconciliation.
“I come from Rochester, New York, the resting place of Frederick Douglass,” Daniels told Buttigieg during a question-and-answer session at a college campus in Indianola on Tuesday afternoon. “I just wanted to say first, thank you for naming your Douglass Plan after Frederick Douglass, but most importantly, for reaching out to the family and asking them for permission. You know, we have a situation right now where Republicans are using Frederick Douglass’ image to promote Donald Trump, who is so far from his values.”
In his response, Buttigieg extolled the virtues of Douglass, who escaped enslavement in the American South to become one of the most influential abolitionist writers and orators in the country, as “somebody who called out America.”
“He lived so much of what was best in America, but he also wasn’t afraid to honor the flag by calling out all the failures of this country to be what it could be,” Buttigieg said, “and in the course of that made this country better.”
Buttigieg’s response—as well as Daniels’ remark—drew sustained applause from the roughly 450 people in the auditorium, and some white attendees told The Daily Beast that they are still holding out hope that, should Buttigieg pull off some early-state victories, black voters might give his candidacy a second look.
Any minority, religious, racial or otherwise,“would be crazy not to vote for whoever the nominee is,” the 80-year-old undecided caucus-goer told The Daily Beast, before his seatmate at the Indianola town hall, Charles Cantor, told The Daily Beast that he’d struck up a conversation with a black attendee while waiting in line.
“I happened to visit with him as we were walking in, and I asked him about the black support—I told him what I had heard and read,” Cantor said. “He said to be careful about that because ‘no one,’ he said, ‘interviewed me.’”
But even Buttigieg’s strongest supporters are worried that, short of presumptuously announcing a well-liked running mate of color, time may be running out to win those voters over.
“I know that the polls are saying that he’s lacking in support from black people,” said Pulido. “Whether he gets that support, you know… we’ve got six days left.”