Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, likened it to his own experience at about this time 16 years ago.
“I remember being in the lead,” Dean said. And “the other candidates are going to come after you, try to knock you off your perch.”
“He’s going to feel like Elizabeth Warren did at the [October debate], like a pin cushion,” Dean added, noting that it was Buttigieg’s turn through the gauntlet, after Warren “acquitted herself well” in October, as her poll numbers were on the rise.
Though the campaign has heated up recently, many candidates are still reluctant to go on the attack and risk alienating a rival’s supporters. But Buttigieg’s strong polling out of Iowa has already come with fresh criticism over several campaign missteps related to one of the mayor’s biggest weaknesses: his lack of support among African American voters, which has contributed to his lower numbers in polls of Democrats in South Carolina and nationally.
Last week, the Buttigieg campaign faced pushback from activists, Democratic officials and voters for using a stock image of a Kenyan woman and a young boy in his website’s promotional material for the Douglass Plan, a policy proposal aimed at lifting up African Americans through criminal justice, education and housing reforms. He also faced blowback on the rollout of the plan itself.
Sen. Kamala Harris, when asked about the use of the stock image, said, “I’m sure someone agrees that was a big mistake. He’s going to have to answer for that.”
“This is not ok or necessary,” tweeted Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who has endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Stock imagery is common in campaign literature, but the Buttigieg campaign apologized for the “confusion” the photo caused, adding in a statement that it “was removed from the page on our website promoting the Douglass Plan months ago.” The campaign also said that the photo was “initially selected while a contractor was running our site, and the website it was pulled from did not indicate the photo was taken in Kenya.”
Buttigieg also took heat for the rollout of his Douglass Plan, when the campaign cited support from 400 South Carolinians in an op-ed released last month. Some of those listed said it gave the false impression that they were also endorsing Buttigieg the candidate for president, while others complained that they hadn’t actually endorsed the plan at all, The Intercept reported on Friday. The publication also found that not all the endorsers of the plan were African Americans, to which the campaign said it was “clear that not every supporter of the plan is Black, and have never claimed otherwise in any public communication.”
At a Monday event at Morehouse College, a historically black college in Georgia, Buttigieg said it “was a learning experience for the campaign staff and one that I’ll own up to, because I’m in charge of the campaign.”
“We have a lot of people who are supporting it, but a few people who didn’t believe that the message reflected their support, so, we’re clearing that up,” Buttigieg said.
Tameika Isaac Devine, a Columbia, S.C., city councilwoman — and one of the people who sought clarification that she had endorsed Buttigieg’s policy plan but not his candidacy — said Buttigieg’s “biggest issue is that people don’t know him” in South Carolina.
But the dust-up over the op-ed would be “ripe for [candidates] to go after him for” on the debate stage, she said, because “when someone becomes a frontrunner in any poll, the other candidates are going to go after them.”
Earlier this week, Harris previewed a possible line of attack for one of Buttigieg’s opponents: “Let’s be clear that the Democratic nominee has got to be someone who has the experience of connecting with all of who we are as the diversity of the American people,” Harris said in Nevada, when asked about Buttigieg’s low levels of support among voters of color.
“You can’t unify folks if you don’t understand who they are and their specific needs and the right that they have to be represented, based not on a stock photograph, but who they actually are,” Harris continued.
Democratic opponents could also link Buttigieg’s failure to gain traction with African-American voters to his electability, said Rebecca Katz, a Democratic consultant who’s worked with progressive candidates but is unaffiliated in the presidential primary.
“No one’s yet talked about electability as it relates to Buttigieg, but Pete hasn’t ever won a big race, winning a college town with a few thousand votes … and he’s shown himself to be tone deaf with communities of color, so all of that matters here,” Katz said. “Can he hold his own in the big leagues?”
Even President Donald Trump’s campaign found an opening in Buttigieg’s misstep, releasing a statement saying that Buttigieg’s “inability to get real support from blacks in South Carolina shows how out of touch he is.”
On Monday, a new Quinnipiac University poll found that among African-American Democrats in South Carolina, Buttigieg had 0 percent support.
These recent missteps amplify previous mistakes by the campaign, some Democrats said. Last month, the Buttigieg campaign removed Steven Patton — a former Chicago city attorney who tried to block the release of the video of the Laquan McDonald shooting — as a co-host for a fundraiser in Chicago. And last summer, Buttigieg came under harsh criticism for his record with policing in South Bend, after a white police officer fatally shot Eric Logan, a black man. Buttigieg conceded in the Democratic debate in June that he had failed to increase diversity on the police force.
“When African American voters have other credible options to choose from, you have to do everything you can to minimize mistakes and not repeat them,” said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic consultant. “One mistake is one thing, but being a repeat offender is problematic in a competitive Democratic primary when African Americans know their net-worth.”
When asked about his poor performance with those voters Monday night, Buttigieg pointed to the 60 percent of black voters who said they weren’t familiar with him.
“There’s a strong majority of black voters in South Carolina [who] still say that they have not formed an opinion or haven’t heard enough to form an opinion at all about my candidacy,” Buttigieg said, which is “all the more indication that it’s so important for us to do this engagement.”
Francesca Bentley and Kennedy Malveaux, juniors at Spelman College who attended the mayor’s event at Morehouse College Monday night, said they didn’t know much about Buttigieg before they heard him speak. But they “valued his specificity” on the Douglass Plan, Malveaux said.
“If he were to talk about that on national TV” at the debate, “that’d be really powerful,” Bentley said.