Big money, low polling: Is this as good as it gets for Mayor Pete?

Democratic presidential candidate Mayor of South Bend Pete Buttigieg speaks during the first primary debate for the 2020 elections at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami on Thursday, June 27, 2019.
Democratic presidential candidate Mayor of South Bend Pete Buttigieg speaks during the first primary debate for the 2020 elections at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami on Thursday, June 27, 2019. adiaz@miamiherald.com

The crowd laughed and Pete Buttigieg frowned ever so slightly. He wasn’t trying to be funny.

Speaking to an audience of thousands of black journalists gathered in Miami for a national convention, the South Bend mayor and presidential candidate was trying to explain to NBC’s Craig Melvin why he fired the first African American police chief in his Indiana suburb.

The decision, made in 2012 when a 30-year-old Buttigieg was just a few months into his first term as mayor, has dogged him throughout his eight-year tenure and well into his dark horse run for the Democratic nomination by eroding support in the black community. The controversy is the linchpin of a growing narrative that Buttigieg — who has emerged over the first six months of his campaign as a threat to win the Democratic nomination — can’t grow his support beyond a base of white, college-educated voters and bridge a gap with America’s black communities.

“When I have to find out from somebody else that they’re being investigated by the FBI, it affects my ability to trust them as a public safety adviser,” Buttigieg said of his former police chief, raising his right hand twice to stem the laughs that crescendoed from the crowd. “I don’t mean to be cute about it.”

The unlikeliest of the top-tier presidential candidates, Buttigieg says he’s surprised even himself with how quickly his campaign caught the attention of voters, journalists and donors. He wasn’t quite two years removed from dropping out of the race for chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee when in January he announced that he’d try to make history as the first sitting mayor, first openly gay candidate and first millennial to become president of the United States.

Since then, his campaign staff has grown from roughly 40 to about 250. And he’s cultivated a network of donors that has made him one of the top fundraisers in the Democratic primary and given him staying power through the long slog to the Iowa caucuses in February.

But, for Buttigieg, is this as good as it gets?

Even as he raised $24.8 million during the second quarter of the year — easily the most money of any Democrat — his support in national polls fell by about half from a high of 10 points in April to about five points this month. And two well-received debate performances, in Miami in June and Detroit in July, seemed to do nothing to pull him closer to the leaders in the field: former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, California Sen. Kamala Harris and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“He’s done some monster fundraising but his numbers haven’t moved much,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University poll, which on Tuesday released a poll showing Buttigieg stuck at 5% support.

Buttigieg dismisses the current importance of polls, with the start of primary voting in Iowa still months away. But he acknowledges that in order to remain relevant once voting begins, he’ll need to improve his standing with black and Hispanic voters. And he’s setting out to do just that by increasingly talking to minority audiences, expanding his on-the-ground operation in early voting states and meeting personally with organizers in minority communities.

“There’s still a very high ceiling,” Buttigieg told the Miami Herald Thursday night during an interview after his appearance at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Aventura. “We know two things: [voters] like what they hear and see when we reach them, and there’s still an awful lot of voters who don’t know much about us at all.”

A glimpse of Buttigieg’s 48 hours in Florida this week helps illustrate how he’s trying to break out of the box he’s in with voters.

On Wednesday, before flying into Miami, Buttigieg sat down privately in Orlando with Puerto Rican transplants who have settled in Florida following Hurricane Maria in 2017. The following day, before heading to a resort and convention center for the NABJ convention, Buttigieg met privately for about an hour with Venezuelan organizers at a business incubator near Miami’s health district.

Liz Rebecca Alarcón, a Venezuelan public relations entrepreneur who attended the gathering at the University of Miami’s Life Sciences building, said a group of “moms, activists, entrepreneurs and influencers” talked to Buttigieg about the deportation of Venezuelans by the administration of President Donald Trump, the fear of the economic and humanitarian crisis that has caused 4 million people to flee the country, and the paradoxical struggle to adapt to life in Florida while fighting to return home.

“Mayor Pete listened ... and we valued that,” Alarcón wrote in a text message.

Christian Ulvert, a Miami-based Democratic political consultant whose Venezuelan husband was invited to Thursday’s private gathering, said the South Bend mayor needs to meet directly with minority voters as he chases candidates who have spent years building and cultivating networks around the country.

“It’s a strong move by the campaign to continuously, in a genuine way, bring together diverse communities into Mayor Pete’s orbit,” said Ulvert, who supports Buttigieg. “He’s smart for doing it.”

Quinnipiac’s August poll found Buttigieg with 3% support among black voters nationally. In South Carolina, where African Americans comprise a majority of the primary electorate for Democrats, Buttigieg received 1% support in a poll conducted late last month by Monmouth University.

“Pete has a black problem,” Ohio Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, the former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told the Daily Beast in June.

A poll released this week by The Economist/YouGov found that only 16 percent of black voters in the country are considering Buttigieg for president. But the poll also found that less than half of those polled knew who he was.

In an interview with the Miami Herald, Buttigieg said he’s investing more money in field staff in early primary states, where he hopes to build relationships with community organizers and activists and expand his reach into minority communities.

“We have 57 people, I think, in Iowa. We’re hiring right and left in South Carolina,” he said. “These days it’s less and less about an air war and much more about finding voters where they are and hearing their concerns.”

Buttigieg has the money to be methodical. As of the start of July, he had $23 million in the bank and, according to the Center for Public Integrity, was spending money at a slower rate than almost any of the other two-dozen candidates seeking the Democratic nomination, except for Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. He says he’s received donations from more than 400,000 people, easily qualifying him for the September and October debates.

But Buttigieg’s challenges go beyond his ability to reach out to new voters.

Polls show that many voters are focused on finding a candidate who can beat Trump — a quality most assign to the front-running Biden. And the millennial mayor, who at 37 would be the youngest person elected president, is also hoping for two other firsts: first sitting mayor elected president and first openly gay person elected president.

Malloy, the Quinnipiac pollster, said that while polling indicates that Democratic voters overwhelmingly believe an openly gay candidate can become president, they also overwhelmingly believe that will “never happen.” Black and Hispanic communities also tend to be more steeped in faith than white communities, which has led to speculation about whether Buttigieg’s sexual orientation has created complications that could cap his fast rise to relevance.

“He’s running against that, too, to some extent,” Malloy said.

Buttigieg told the Miami Herald Thursday that the more people hear about his policy proposals the more they’re interested in his campaign.

At NABJ — as Biden stumbled in Iowa by telling a largely Hispanic and Asian audience that “poor kids are just as bright, just as talented, as white kids” — Buttigieg explained his belief that federal laws must be changed to favor black communities in order to help them recover from systemic injustices that he said are ingrained in American history and institutions.

He spoke about his Frederick Douglass plan, which proposes increased federal investment on healthcare, education and other issues in neighborhoods that have been subject to historic discrimination by lenders and the government, and award 25 percent of all government contracts to minority-owned businesses.

“You cannot take a racist policy and replace it with a neutral one and expect it to get better on its own,” he told the audience.

Freddy Balsera, a Miami-based Democratic consultant who advised Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign on Hispanic media and currently sits on Buttigieg’s finance committee, said he’s confident that Buttigieg’s politics will catch on with more voters once people begin to pay attention and the field starts to winnow.

“I don’t know if people are really following the process as closely as the pundits and experts are. Most Americans are on vacation right now or getting ready to send their kids to school,” Balsera said. “The race is going to define itself, and he’s definitely in the top five, in my view. As people begin to drop out because they don’t have a lane going forward, he’s going to start capturing that attention.”

Buttigieg remains confident that his ability to connect with people in intimate settings will help him become president much in the way it helped him become mayor at 29.

But even now that he’s a top-tier presidential candidate, he’s still explaining his decisions and apologizing for his mistakes made as mayor. Buttigieg told NBC’s Melvin Thursday that he doesn’t regret firing Police Chief Darryl Boykins in 2012. He does regret not speaking to him first and not understanding that South Bend’s black community wasn’t angry about his firing as much as they were fearful of the city’s police department and its government. He also said he understands the frustration in the wake of the killing last month of Erik Logan by a white officer outside the city’s police station.

Whether Buttigieg is capable of repairing relationships back home and establishing them on a much broader scale remains to be seen.

‘I’m not here to say I became mayor and we solved racism and discrimination,” he told Melvin. “What I’m here to say is, it matters if the president cares.”