Mayor Pete’s South Carolina Problem

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks in Galivants Ferry, South Carolina, U.S. September 16, 2019. (Randall Hill/Reuters)

Buttigieg lags among black voters.

Pete Buttigieg is on the move in the Democratic primary. On Monday, a Quinnipiac poll showed the South Bend, Ind., mayor in contention in New Hampshire, where Biden leads at 20 percent, just a few points ahead of Warren (16 percent), Buttigieg (15 percent), and Sanders (14 percent). On Tuesday, a Monmouth survey showed Buttigieg leading in Iowa for the first time this year: At 22 percent, Buttigieg was a few points ahead of Joe Biden (19 percent) and Elizabeth Warren (18 percent).

The Democratic nomination remains very much up for grabs, but a big question hanging over Buttigieg’s head is whether he can make sufficient inroads with African-American primary voters to capture the nomination.

Black voters make up about a quarter of the Democratic primary electorate, but two thirds of South Carolina primary voters are black, and Buttigieg remains stuck in the single digits in the Palmetto State. A Monmouth poll of South Carolina conducted after the October Democratic debate, where Buttigieg went toe-to-toe with Elizabeth Warren and won, pegged the mayor’s support at 3 percent, while a Change Research poll conducted at the same time showed Buttigieg at 9 percent.

Buttigieg’s weakness in South Carolina is partly a function of the fact that Joe Biden, former vice president to America’s first black president, retains a commanding lead among black voters. But Buttigieg’s weakness is also partly a function of his sexual orientation, as David Catanese reported in The State last month: “Internal focus groups conducted by Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign this summer reveal a possible reason why he is struggling with African-American voters: some see his sexuality as a problem.”

“I’ll go ahead and say it,” one African-American man said in a focus group. “I don’t like the fact that he threw out there that he lives with his husband.”

Polling backs up the findings of the focus groups. Gallup has long tested voters’ bias against political candidates based on various factors, such as race or religion, by asking the question: “If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be [X], would you vote for that person?”

When Gallup asked that question this year, 17 percent of Democrats said they would not vote for a gay or lesbian candidate. A spokeswoman for Gallup tells National Review that while 9 percent of white Democrats said they would not vote for a gay or lesbian candidate, 22 percent of non-white Democrats said they would not vote for a gay or lesbian candidate.* And recall that this is a question about voting in a general election for a “generally well-qualified” nominee of one’s own party. The percentage of Democrats who would be reluctant to vote for a candidate in the Democratic primary due to his sexual orientation is surely higher than that.

While that’s a significant hurdle for Buttigieg in the Democratic party, past experience suggests it is not insurmountable. In 2011, when Gallup asked the question about voting for a Mormon candidate, 18 percent of Republicans (22 percent of voters overall) said they would not vote for a well-qualified Mormon of their own party in a general election. That’s nearly identical to the 17 percent of Democrats in 2019 who say they wouldn’t vote for a gay or lesbian candidate. Mormon Mitt Romney was still able to win the Republican nomination in 2012, and that’s an encouraging sign for Buttigieg in 2020.

*These results are based on a sample of 294 white Democrats/Democratic leaners with a margin of error of +/- 7 percentage points and a sample of 144 non-white Democrats/Democratic leaners with a margin of error of +/- 10 percentage points. “We did statistical significance testing given the small sample sizes and it is a meaningful difference. That said, the N size on nonwhite Democrats is small enough to exercise extra caution,” Gallup spokeswoman Jennifer Donegan writes in an email.

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