Since then, the Democratic Party’s expectations surrounding race—like its expectations surrounding money—have dramatically changed, at Buttigieg’s expense. Trace the arc of his campaign, and it’s clear that, at two key junctures, his struggles with black voters blunted his momentum.
The first occurred over the summer. From March to May of last year, Buttigieg ascended from less than 1 percent to 8 percent in national polls. Then, in June, he left the campaign trail to respond to a police shooting of an African American man in South Bend. Footage of African American protesters angrily confronting the mayor went viral. “You’re running for president, and you want black people to vote for you?” one protester announced. “That’s not going to happen.”
Asked at a Democratic debate a few days later why South Bend’s police force remained overwhelmingly white, Buttigieg admitted, “Because I couldn’t get it done.” His rise in the polls soon stalled. By August, The New York Times was observing that “criticism of Mr. Buttigieg’s oversight of the police has damaged his viability as a Democratic presidential candidate.”
The mayor tried to repair the damage. In July, he announced an ambitious racial-justice agenda, which he called “The Douglass Plan.” And starting in October, as Warren lost support, he began another climb. By November, journalists were writing about “the Buttigieg moment.”
Then more racial problems hit. The Intercept reported that African American leaders who the Buttigieg campaign claimed had endorsed the Douglass Plan actually had not. The mother and child in the photo accompanying the plan on the campaign’s website turned out to be from Kenya. Buttigieg was forced to apologize for a 2011 video in which he said that many kids in “lower-income minority neighborhoods” don’t “know [anyone] personally who testifies to the value of education.” When Buttigieg suggested, during a November debate, that being gay helps him understand the discrimination African Americans face, Kamala Harris called him “naive.” When a campaign memo suggested that homophobia was one reason for Buttigieg’s failure to attract more black support, African American columnists called it a racist smear. His polling numbers began dipping once again, and by December, The Washington Post was noting that Buttigieg’s “struggles to connect with black voters have become one of the dominant narratives of his campaign.”
By the time Iowa and New Hampshire voted, the story line about Buttigieg’s lack of black support was so ingrained that it led some to affix an asterisk to his strong performance in those overwhelmingly white states. Buttigieg’s inability to disprove that story line in Nevada (where African Americans constituted 11 percent of Democratic voters) and South Carolina (where they constituted a majority) doomed his campaign.