An internal report from Pete Buttigieg’s campaign shows there may be concern about whether or not the candidate’s sexual orientation is a liability for Black voters in the Democratic primaries. His team, however, claims the findings have been misinterpreted.
The South Bend, Ind. mayor’s campaign commissioned three 90-minute focus groups that included a total of 24 Black likely voters in Columbia, South Carolina who at the time hadn’t decided on their preferred candidate. The July 21 report, which was obtained by McClatchy D.C. and released today, indicates senior campaign officials were briefed with key findings from Benenson Strategy Group, a political consulting firm.
Among the findings from the small focus groups, the report’s authors noted that the voters knew little about Buttigieg, and only a handful of participants knew who he was at the time. Yet his sexuality “was a barrier for... voters” who preferred that his sexuality not be front and center while campaigning, while other members of the focus group felt Buttigieg’s experience as a gay man may allow him to relate to Black Americans’ struggles with discrimination.
Given the pushback around the false, debunked stereotype about Black voters are less accepting than other populations, the McClatchy report was met with raised eyebrows from critics on Twitter, who claimed his campaign was pushing the “Black community is homophobic” narrative to explain his lack of support among people of color.
Various polls show that Buttigieg lags far behind other candidates among Black voters, with support coming in at one percent based on a survey conducted by Hill-HarrisX.
The issue is a fraught one. Reports that Black homophobia at the ballot box caused tensions within Black and LGBTQ+ populations as early as 2008, when voters in California voted to ban same-sex marriage on the same night that they voted to elect Barack Obama as the nation’s first Black president. Although Black communities make up less than seven percent of the state’s population, an estimated 58 percent of Black people who turned out to the polls voted in favor of Proposition 8.
At the time, these voters were subjected to intense scapegoating in news reports and op-eds, many of which scolded Black communities for discriminating against LGBTQ+ people, even despite their own experiences with bigotry and racism. Even so, post-election analysis would eventually note that their votes were relatively in line with other racial and ethnic groups.
Meanwhile, polling from the Public Religion Research Institute shows Black Protestants are broadly supportive of same-sex marriage and oppose religious exemptions to providing services based on sexual orientation.
Most of the Benenson report, however, focuses not on Buttigieg’s sexuality, but rather how he would perform alongside candidates such as Kamala Harris and former vice president Joe Biden, the latter of whom many focus group participants favored because of his time in the Obama administration. Biden also continues to poll best among Black Americans nationally, with support registering at 36 percent in the Hill-HarrisX survey, representing a 24-point lead over his nearest competitor.
Other points of discussion included criticism of how Buttigieg handled police brutality against people of color in South Bend, where he has served as mayor since 2012. Benenson convened the focus groups on July 16, just five days after Buttigieg released his Douglass Plan to address racial inequities, as part of an appeal to Black voters.
The Buttigieg campaign told Out that remarks about his sexuality emerged organically after each of the participants were given a brief bio about the mayor, which mentioned in the closing sentence that the candidate lives with his husband, Chasten.
“This was an exploratory focus group,” a spokesperson told Out, adding that the focus group also wasn’t about race and that various elements of Buttigieg’s bio came up in the discussion. “It was not set up to explore Pete’s sexuality and the questions in that focus group were no different than questions we asked white focus groups... The purpose of the focus group is always the same.”
The campaign didn’t say, however, whether or not similar focus groups within Black communities were conducted around the same period.
When asked about whether the campaign is concerned about how Buttigieg’s sexuality is affecting his support amongst Black voters, the spokesperson didn’t provide a clear answer. Instead he pointed to the campaign’s efforts to build awareness and trust within the community, including several speaking stops with Black organizations and the hiring of more Black campaign staff, including South Carolina’s state director.
The campaign faced criticism last week over a campaign fundraiser in Chicago sponsored by an attorney involved in holding up the release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video, in which the Black teenager was shot 16 times by a police officer.
Buttigieg told reporters that it was a “frustrating” oversight and that the lawyer’s donations would be returned.