The results of a new South Carolina focus group obtained by McClatchy last week revealed why South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg has been struggling to earn the support of black voters.
The focus group, conducted by the Benenson Strategy group with black South Carolina Democrats show Buttigieg’s homosexuality to be a key issue that black voters felt uncomfortable with, shining new light on obstacles the candidate’s sexuality might pose in the Democratic primary.
“That’s not my thing but I wouldn’t want to know that as a candidate,” said a female participant under the age of 40. “I just want to know what you can bring to the table versus your personal… Especially when you come to the husband. That’s too much information.”
The 21-page report found that men were particularly uncomfortable with even discussing Buttigieg’s sexuality. The authors noted a long pause when the moderators asked whether anyone had concerns about the candidate’s biography.
“I’ll go ahead and say it,” said a male participant. “I don’t like the fact that he threw out there that he lives with his husband.”
Buttigieg, 37, is the only openly gay candidate in the race and is married to his husband, Chasten. For many, Buttigieg’s sexuality has been cause for celebration as they mayor’s surprise relative success in the race has illustrated societal progress on the acceptance of homosexuality. It was only 15 years ago in 2004 that a majority of Americans believed gay and lesbian relations between consenting adults should be illegal, according to the Pew Research Center.
While it hasn’t been an issue in Iowa and New Hampshire, where Buttigieg stands in third and fourth place respectively in Real Clear Politics’ latest aggregate of polls, it is likely to pose a real obstacle in the subsequent stages of the Democratic primary as the race moves south beyond the first two voting states where Buttigieg will be faced with the challenge of courting black voters.
African-Americans constitute a majority of Democrats in South Carolina and are a must-win voting bloc for any candidate hoping to win the Democratic nomination. Buttigieg’s polling numbers among this key group however remain dismal, showing no pulse of support to build on for the Indiana mayor who must expand his base of support to clinch the Party’s coronation in Wisconsin next summer.
Unfortunately for Buttigieg, African-Americans have been shown to be a socially conservative voting group that will prove difficult for Buttigieg to make inroads with, despite the candidate’s slew of policy proposals aimed at winning them over.
“Conventional wisdom suggests that as the primary moves south that the candidates will be faced with more African-American voters who tend to be more socially conservative,” said Jacob Neiheisel, a political science professor at the University of Buffalo.
Neiheisel said that while it might be changing, African-Americans are largely evangelical despite being predominantly Democrat which can be a problem for a homosexual candidate such as Buttigieg to gain traction among these voters.
Clay Middleton is a South Carolina Democratic National Committee member advising New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. Middleton told the State newspaper that he was unsurprised by the Buttigieg campaign’s findings in the South Carolina focus group.
“I’ve been a black guy all my life in the South and it is one of those things. African-Americans, when it comes to certain things, are very conservative,” Middleton told the paper. “If you needed a focus group to tell you that, ok.”
At the same time, Buttigieg’s sexuality likely propelled him in the early stages of his campaign, earning Buttigieg loyal support among the party’s LGBT donors and voters and prompting glowing media coverage as a novelty candidate breaking barriers as the first major openly gay presidential candidate in American history. Buttigieg’s style of campaigning as a bible-quoting homosexual from the mid-west has also defied stereotypes about modern gay men, helping Buttigieg in places like Iowa where voters tend to be more conservative.
The obstacles posed by Buttigieg’s sexuality however, are not limited to black voters. It may also be an issue for white conservative voters though African-Americans have historically been critical to candidates seeking the Democratic nomination as they were for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
If Buttigieg were to make it past the primary and into the general, Neiheisel said the hurdle Buttigieg’s sexuality may pose would not likely result in black Democratic voters going for Trump but could instead result in a repeat of the 2016 election where voters fail to turn out.
“I wouldn’t worry about bolting to the other party but I would worry about voters staying home,” Neiheisel said.