Democratic debate: All eyes are on Pete Buttigieg, especially from skeptical black voters

Democratic debate: All eyes are on Pete Buttigieg, especially from skeptical black voters

Presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg's success in recent polls suggests he has a big target on his back — one that, if not skillfully negotiated, could cost him the Democratic nomination.

Buttigieg’s campaign is surging, just in time for Wednesday’s Democratic presidential primary debate in Atlanta. Once an obscure long shot, Buttigieg has wedged his way to the top of a field featuring Democratic candidates Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Buttigieg is leading in the Iowa polls, with 25% of voters in one survey saying he’s their first choice for president. Since September, according to the latest Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll, Buttigieg has risen 16 percentage points among Iowa’s likely Democratic caucusgoers. Biden, Sanders and Warren are all about 10 percentage points behind Buttigieg.

Momentum is on Buttigieg's side among the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates — at least for now. If he wins Iowa he could also secure New Hampshire, which sometimes follows the whims of bellwether state Iowa. Because of his newfound top-tier stratus, Buttigieg also will undoubtedly be in the crosshairs of his rivals. And unfortunately, Buttigieg’s campaign has given them some ammunition.

Weakness with black voters

Buttigieg, who has struggled to build broader appeal among people of color, particularly African Americans, is facing allegations that his campaign grossly inflated support among black voters in South Carolina.

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Last month, Buttigieg’s campaign announced that more than 400 South Carolinians endorsed his Douglass Plan, his proposal aimed at helping to combat institutional racism and empower black Americans. It turns out some of the signees were not African American, nor did they even live in the state.

Earlier this week, Buttigieg was again dinged because a stock photo that appeared on his campaign website accompanying details about the Douglass Plan — named after abolitionist and activist Frederick Douglass — was that of a Kenyan woman and child. The photo was reportedly removed from the website’s page in September.

“As our campaign has grown, we have brought all of our web development in-house to help guard against mistakes like this," Buttigieg's campaign said in a statement. "We apologize for its use and the confusion it created.”

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Stock photos certainly are used in today's digital sphere, both on professional and personal platforms. But with Buttigieg’s large campaign kitty, such a snafu looks looks amateurish — and worse — dishonest.

In both cases, I don’t believe there’s some deeper, nefarious political manipulation happening, but among already skeptical black voters, such missteps can be costly. I expect Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), both African American, to take at least a few swipes Wednesday.

Expect to be challenged

After all, during the October debate, Buttigieg set an aggressive tone. Along with other candidates, he repeatedly used his time to go after Warren, who was leading in polls at the time.

“This is why people are so frustrated,” Buttigieg said about Warren’s lack of details in her “Medicare for All” health care platform. “Your signature, senator, is to have a plan for everything, except this.”

Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg speaks in Las Vegas, Nevada on November 17, 2019.
Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg speaks in Las Vegas, Nevada on November 17, 2019.

I foresee Warren returning the favor.

Buttigieg, 37, has thus far beat back criticism about his youth and lack of government experience by touting a need for generational change and arguing that he has more executive experience than President Donald Trump. I expect his (ahem) older rivals to try to paint Buttigieg as an up-and-comer but not ready for the Oval Office.

Buttigieg may be the mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city, but he’s playing on the biggest stage of his career now. He is at a pivotal point in his presidential bid. Wednesday's debate may be Buttigieg's toughest test yet. The pressure is on and he has little room for error.

Suzette Hackney is a columnist with the IndyStar, where this column originally appeared. Follow her on Twitter: @suzyscribe.

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This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Democratic debate: Pete Buttigieg's crucial moment with black voters