Pete Buttigieg was all set to skip King Day at the Dome, a rally commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. in Columbia, S.C., and instead attend an MLK event in his hometown — until South Carolina state Rep. J.A. Moore intervened, after learning Buttigieg would be absent while most of his Democratic presidential rivals attended the rally.
Moore screen-grabbed an article about Buttigieg’s planned absence and texted it to one of Buttigieg’s senior staffers with a terse addition: three question marks. The campaign, which has struggled to generate black support, reversed course. “He had to be there, and they listened,” said Moore, who endorsed Buttigieg this week.
The episode illustrates the Buttigieg campaign’s “willingness to take constructive criticism,” Moore said — but also the steep hole in organizing, support and experience politicking among voters of color that he and Amy Klobuchar face as the 2020 Democratic primary moves into more diverse territory.
Buttigieg and Klobuchar, who was also slow to confirm her attendance at King Day at the Dome but later reversed course, bounced out of Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary with top-three finishes, media attention and money flowing into their campaigns. But all that momentum could easily evaporate as they turn to states with significant numbers of Latino and African American voters, who have yet to show interest in either candidate in real numbers so far in the 2020 race, despite significant spending by Buttigieg in South Carolina.
The two Midwestern moderates are squaring up against better-organized candidates, like Bernie Sanders and better-known ones, like Joe Biden and free-spending billionaire Tom Steyer, in Nevada and South Carolina. Both of their records contain flaws that black and brown voters might find unacceptable. And the 14 Super Tuesday states, which include California, Texas and a big chunk of the South, have seen a big chunk of Michael Bloomberg’s $300 million-plus in TV ad spending, which has helped grow his support among African American voters to 22 percent nationally in a recent Quinnipiac poll.
In Nevada, “there’s not a lot of time to on-ramp if you don’t already have a solid ground game in Nevada and a solid coalition of people of color supporting you,” said Megan Jones, a Nevada-based Democratic consultant who advised Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign. “I think Nevada could be a rude awakening for some of the supposed frontrunners.”
And in South Carolina, “the challenges for both of them moving forward are obvious,” said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC. “Their numbers with black voters have been consistent. They are not registering.”
Buttigieg and Klobuchar’s campaigns are now racing to lay out political track in front of them, though one Democratic strategist warned that many black voters grow more skeptical of new appeals the closer they get to Election Day. Nationally, Buttigieg got 4 percent among black Democrats and Klobuchar had 0 percent support according to a Quinnipiac University poll released this week.
“It’s going to be a real uphill battle for both of them because communities of color are used to white politicians coming in at the end and asking for their votes,” said the strategist, who is unaffiliated in the presidential race. “Sanders and [Tom] Steyer have put in a lot more legwork, more organization in those communities, and Buttigieg and Klobuchar will have to figure out a way to harness the momentum out of Iowa and New Hampshire to make up for lost time.”
Buttigieg, aided by a larger financial war chest, could be better positioned to capitalize on the late momentum out of Iowa and New Hampshire. Buttigieg’s campaign announced Wednesday that it was doubling its on-the-ground staff in Nevada to 100 people and ramping up TV and digital ad spending. He’s already aired Spanish-language digital ads in the state. In South Carolina, he’s already spent just over $1.4 million on TV ads, which started airing in December.
VoteVets, a progressive veterans group that has endorsed Buttigieg, is also going up with a TV ad buy in Nevada, after dropping nearly $1.5 million to boost the mayor in New Hampshire.
Klobuchar’s campaign is also dispatching 50 staffers to Nevada. On Tuesday night, Klobuchar announced a seven-figure ad buy in there, too. But Klobuchar hasn’t spent any money on TV ads in South Carolina yet.
“Black voters are acting in a very transactional way — all we care about is if you can beat Donald Trump, and if you can make that case, I can look past your flaws,” said Joel Payne, Hillary Clinton’s director of African American media. “There’s no romancing them. That’s good news for Amy and Pete, if they can demonstrate that.”
They’ll have to play catch up to do so, and they already face a daunting advertising deficit. Steyer, who appeared to stake his candidacy on support from people of color during the New Hampshire debate, has dropped a combined $34 million on TV ads in Nevada and South Carolina an investment that’s paid dividends in his polling and endorsements in the state. This week, Steyer announced that he hired Gilda Cobb-Hunter, an influential South Carolina state lawmaker, to his campaign.
Meanwhile, campaigning in more diverse states will likely trigger more conversation about Buttigieg and Klobuchar’s records. For Buttigieg, this is more familiar territory: He’s been answering questions about race relations and his record managing the South Bend police since the June debate. But at last week’s debate, Buttigieg still struggled to answer a question about the rising arrest rates of black residents for marijuana possession while he was mayor.
“That narrative is baked” for Buttigieg, said Shropshire. “For Klobuchar, she’s more of a blank canvass at the moment because people don’t know her as well, but she will get more scrutiny now.”
Klobuchar confronted tough questions about her record on “The View” this week, when host Sunny Hostin questioned why she “failed to prosecute a single killing by the police” during her eight-year tenure as a county prosecutor.
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“As for my support in the African American community, I’ve always had strong support in my elections at home, and I have a number of key leaders in the African American community from Minnesota that have gone and campaigned for me in places like California and Iowa,” Klobuchar said. “My challenge is to get people to know me.”
Whether or not Buttigieg or Klobuchar can break in with nonwhite voters, the crowded Democratic field could offer them another lifeline. There are still significant numbers of white Democrats in Nevada, and Buttigieg’s campaign has already showed its prowess in a caucus system with his finish in Iowa, where he is just ahead of Sanders in the state delegate count while Iowa Democrats look into possible errors in the vote count.
Travis Brock, the Buttigieg campaign’s delegate director, helped them rack up victories in rural counties in Iowa. But Brock’s background is in Nevada, where he helped to run the first caucuses in 2008.
Still, the two states “present a real challenge for Pete and Amy because voters here don’t know them and they’ve seen no movement or growth in support among voters of color,” said Annette Magnus, executive director of Battleborn Nevada, a progressive group.
South Carolina state Sen. Marlon Kimpson said it’s the same story in his state.
“It’s going to be a leap for us to get comfortable with a small-town mayor who’s just recently introduced himself,” said Kimpson, who has endorsed Biden. “And I don’t hear anyone talking about Amy Klobuchar in South Carolina. Not one.”