Buttigieg, Klobuchar face uphill battle in pivot to diverse states

by Rafael Bernal and Amie Parnes

Democratic candidates Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, fresh off their strong showings in New Hampshire and Iowa, now face the uphill battle of winning over black and Latino voters in a short amount of time.

The former South Bend, Ind., mayor and Minnesota senator have shown their brand of moderate Midwestern politics carries traction with white liberal voters, but they will need to fine tune that message in Nevada and South Carolina before the onslaught of Super Tuesday.

Democratic strategists say that while both candidates captivated voters in the two early states with white-majority populations, that support may not translate into the next round of February contests.

“We go from the Butter Cow and small diners of Iowa and New Hampshire to the taco stands and church pews of Nevada and South Carolina,” said Democratic strategist Michael Trujillo. 

“While the issues of education, health care and immigration are important in these two upcoming states, it requires being able to convey your message with a church choir behind you and translation headphones worn by audience members,” Trujillo added.

While polls over the past few months have consistently shown former Vice President Joe Biden leading in South Carolina, and near the top in Nevada, much of the landscape has changed in just the past 10 days with the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

But that doesn’t leave much time for Buttigieg and Klobuchar to raise their profile with black and Latino communities and get their names out there before the Feb. 22 contest in Nevada that’s followed a week later by voting in South Carolina.

“I don’t think many people have even heard of either candidate,” said one Democratic strategist, referring to the two Midwestern moderates.

Clemmie Harris, an assistant professor of American History and African studies at Utica College in New York, said the Iowa and New Hampshire showings will give Buttigieg and Klobuchar a boost, but “momentum alone won’t be enough.”

“It’s going to appear that they are pandering because they have no record to show they have a history of fighting for black and Hispanic voters,” Harris said.

A Klobuchar campaign aide told The Hill in an email, “After her surge and strong finish in New Hampshire, Senator Klobuchar is bringing that momentum to Nevada and beyond.”

“Our campaign has more than 50 staff on the ground and just announced a new seven figure ad buy,” the aide said Wednesday. “As she kicks off her 11th visit to Nevada tomorrow, we look forward to making the case to Nevadans that Amy is the right candidate to defeat Donald Trump in November and bring the country together.”

Buttigieg’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Both candidates will be onstage Thursday at the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Presidential Forum in Las Vegas, alongside fellow White House hopeful Tom Steyer. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will be participating by video.

“The road to the White House goes through the barrios and towns of Latino America. Candidates by now should know the Latino vote in Nevada will be crucial, not only in the primaries but also the election,” said Domingo García, national president of LULAC, the oldest Latino civil rights organization.

“Candidates should come ready to listen and engage in conversation with an active Latino electorate about real issues that affect their day to day lives,” he added.

So far, the two campaigns have little to show for their pursuit of minority voters.

Of all the major Democratic candidates, Buttigieg was the only one who did not participate in a policy discussion with the campaign arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC).

Klobuchar was well received during her January sit-down with the group, but she failed to wow the CHC like former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg did two weeks earlier. 

Still, Klobuchar won the endorsement of Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), a prominent CHC member who had spoken glowingly of Bloomberg’s participation.

Buttigieg has yet to secure a single CHC endorsement, though he was endorsed by Congressional Black Caucus member Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) last month.

“What’s missing in his campaign is that…there are no visible Latino surrogates stumping for him,” said Mayra Macías, executive director of Latino Victory, a prominent Hispanic advocacy group.

“It is helpful to have a trusted leader in the community to come out and get your message to the people who are not going to be reading white papers or constantly reading policy,” she added.

And while voters of color regularly rank kitchen table issues like health care and the economy as their top concerns, the two Midwestern candidates have yet to distinguish themselves on topical issues for minorities, like criminal justice, immigration or Puerto Rico.

Buttigieg has struggled to counter the perception that he is disconnected from black voters, a contention that’s made him the target of scathing criticism.

“Not only do his policies not speak to the needs of black people, they perpetuate the status quo,” said Harris. “Hence, as a self-defined moderate he cannot speak to the progressive politics of black voters. His lack of experience and desire for the presidency, especially given the pressing concerns of black and Latino voters, also reflect his white privilege.” 

Federico de Jesús, a Democratic consultant who works with Power 4 Puerto Rico, a group of advocacy organizations supporting reform for the U.S. territory, argued that neither candidate has put out a thorough policy statement on Puerto Rico.

Klobuchar visited the island in May, but “she hasn’t addressed the debt…economic development, health care or other things important to Puerto Ricans on the island and in the diaspora,” said de Jesús.

De Jesús criticized Buttigieg’s Puerto Rico policy statement as being “fairly limited.”

Macías said campaigns that successfully reach out to minority populations share three characteristics: investment in outreach, staff hires in the community and culturally competent messaging. 

Both campaigns have made some advances in all three aspects, but are competing with larger campaigns with more sophisticated and well-funded minority outreach operations.

In Iowa, a state that’s about 6 percent Hispanic according to the Census Bureau, Sanders overwhelmingly won over Latinos, with more than 60 percent of the vote in the state’s few majority-Latino caucus sites. He won almost 100 percent of the four Spanish-language sites.

Biden, meanwhile, is betting all his chips on South Carolina, a testing ground for his advantage in polls with black voters.

After Nevada and South Carolina, though, the need for Buttigieg and Klobuchar to win over minority voters will only stiffen if they want to stay in the race. Looming on the horizon is Super Tuesday and a new name on the ballot: Bloomberg.

On March 3, the Latino vote is expected to flex its muscle. The two states with the largest Hispanic populations, California and Texas, will be among more than a dozen casting ballots. 

Sanders, Biden and Bloomberg all hold organizational advantages over Buttigieg and Klobuchar. Sanders has spent months building grassroots operations to reach minority voters, Biden has incomparable name recognition and Bloomberg is drawing on a seemingly bottomless well of cash.

Still, one Democratic strategist who has worked on previously presidential campaigns but is unaffiliated with any 2020 candidate argued that the momentum coming out of New Hampshire could help Buttigieg and Klobuchar.

“A lot of voters are looking at Iowa and New Hampshire for guidance,” the strategist said. “They’re going to follow the winner and the people who have strength.”

Still, the strategist said, while they may gain support from voters, excitement and motivation will be a bigger challenge.

“The real question is: Will they be able to motivate these communities?”

Rafael Bernal Is a reporter for the Hill. @Rafael_Bernal_

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