Pete Buttigieg’s attempt to win over South Carolina’s African American Voters may not be enough

By Shirin Ali
Medill Reports

Coming off a hot streak of wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, Pete Buttigieg’s campaign attempted to push its momentum to South Carolina earlier this month by hosting The Douglass Plan Culture, Arts & Hip Hop Celebration, a crossover event of arts and politics.

The event was structured to be an open forum for sharing black art and culture, while also advocating for Buttigieg’s Douglass Plan, which the candidate defined as a comprehensive investment in the empowerment of black America.

“I think we as Americans have done a very poor job telling the story of black people in the United States,” said Tiffany James, Pete for America’s black engagement director.

The Buttigieg campaign attracted only a modest group of about 20 local residents, making the event an intimate gathering. Buttigieg has struggled to win over African American voters since the inception of his campaign. A poll conducted by University of Florida’s Public Opinion Research Lab found that only 1% of South Carolina’s African American voters would vote for the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

South Carolina’s primary is on Feb. 29, and according to RealClear Politics’ latest polling average in the state, former vice president Joe Biden is leading with 27%. Buttigieg is polling in fourth at 10%. African Americans make up about 60% of the state’s electorate, many of which are leaning towards Biden, citing strong electability and trustworthiness from his close ties to Barack Obama.

James kicked off the festivities by explaining how black history has been manipulated to only include certain portions of historical moments and lacks pertinent details and context, something the Douglass Plan would address.

“Mayor Pete realizes this, and he said we need to know the full stories of black people and the United States and their contributions to this country,” James said. “When other people learn about our culture and our contributions, they’ll celebrate us.”

The Douglass Plan, released in July 2019, initially received backlash from prominent South Carolina elected officials who said they had agreed to endorse the plan or Buttigieg’s candidacy, even though the campaign said they had.

Ashley Jordan, a local singer invited to perform by James, admitted Buttigieg wasn’t a candidate she was seriously considering.

“I was more interested in Beto O’Rourke. Once he dropped out, I had to find a new candidate but I’m not really sure. I just know that we can’t have another four years of him,” Jordan said, referring to President Trump.

“I’m kind of leaning towards Biden. Only because of familiarity,” she said.

Yet the Douglass Plan did resonate with some in the audience.

Antoine Brown, a rapper from Columbia, said he knew nothing about Buttigieg before being asked to perform. He liked what he initially heard about the Douglass Plan and would consider voting for Buttigieg. Any candidate who had a plan for economic equality, education reform and the willingness to help out the underdog was worth considering, he said.

“There’s a big push in South Carolina for equality, trying to bring a unified vision. So, anybody who’s talking about that, I could get behind,” Brown said.

The Douglass Plan casts a wide net, vowing that when black Americans are uplifted all minorities and people of color can succeed. Proposals included within the plan focus on reforming healthcare, education, housing and voting rights. Buttigieg’s campaign compares the Douglass Plan to the Marshall Plan, rolled out post-World War II and considered the most successful foreign policy program in U.S. history.

“It’s not only a black empowerment plan, but it also really looks at and addresses how do we end systemic racism? And what does that look like?” asked Lauren Brown, Pete for America’s South Carolina communications director. “It’s not a conversation most campaigns are openly or willing to have. And that’s very important to black voters. What as president are you going to do for a historically marginalized community?”

Terrance Washington, a painter from Blackville, didn’t know much about Buttigieg before being asked to present. But after attending the event, he said he liked what the Douglass Plan seemed to be offering.

“I was between him, Andrew Yang and [Michael] Bloomberg. But then Pete kept standing out because he kept saying certain things while other people were tap dancing. He kind of answered the question, I liked that,” Washington said.

Based on what Washington briefly heard about the Douglass Plan, he felt Buttigieg was talking about issues that mattered to him, and that many of the other democratic candidates simply weren’t.

“The way he spoke about how people getting out of prison, most of those people don’t get opportunities. He wants to create a system to create opportunities for those people,” Washington said. “Honestly that’s odd coming from a white guy. So, it’s interesting.”

With only two weeks left before the first-in-the-south primary, it’s still unclear if the Douglass Plan can win over enough African Americans in South Carolina and beyond to advance Buttigieg from his current fifth position in statewide polls.

Lauren Brown is optimistic about Buttigieg’s chances. She believes the race here is still wide open.

“Pete has a very good chance of winning in South Carolina,” she said. “This team is certainly going to do the work and we look forward to continuing to make the case to all voters, [including] it’s black voters, and introducing them to the Douglass Plan like we did here tonight.”

Photo at top: Terrance Washington, a local artist from Orangeburg, discusses the inspiration behind is artwork at The Douglass Plan Culture, Arts & Hip Hop Celebration, hosted by Pete Buttigieg’s campaign. (Shirin Ali/MEDILL)