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The Buttigieg Ceiling

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Pete Buttigieg, it must be said, has run a pretty good campaign. I myself am not much of a fan — of the more moderate candidates I find Booker infinitely preferable, and some of the reasons why Mayor Pete is getting more positive attention are problematic. But it’s still Buttigeig who is the only one outside the big 3 getting any traction, and at this point he’s the pretty clear frontrunner in Iowa.

Can he win the nomination? At this point, it’s still hard to see a path, for two related reasons:

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has 154 endorsements from current or former black or Hispanic elected officials. Senator Kamala Harris has 93. Senator Bernie Sanders has 91. Senator Cory Booker has 50. Senator Elizabeth Warren has 43.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg has six.

The South Bend, Ind., mayor has surged to first place in some Iowa polls and has built a big-money fund-raising operation that is the strongest in the Democratic presidential field.

But as his campaign has grown exponentially beyond the small band of loyalists who began it in January, Mr. Buttigieg has failed to demonstrate even minimal support among African-Americans and Hispanics, critical voting blocs that will have a much larger say after Iowa and New Hampshire, and their nearly all-white electorates, begin the presidential nominating calendar.

On Wednesday night, debate moderators questioned Mr. Buttigieg’s record on racial issues while rivals including Mr. Booker, of New Jersey, and Ms. Harris, of California, suggested he needed on-the-job training in talking to black audiences.

Mr. Buttigieg’s weakness with voters of color — he registered zero percent among black South Carolina Democrats in a Quinnipiac University poll released Monday — limits his potential in the 2020 campaign. A donor-class favorite who draws capacity crowds across Iowa, Mr. Buttigieg counts as his highest-profile black supporter either the man who lost a 2018 election to be Florida’s attorney general or the former mayor of Kansas City, Mo.

No Democrat in modern times has won the party’s nomination without claiming majorities of black voters, the most crucial voting bloc in South Carolina and in an array of delegate-rich Southern states.

Endorsements are probably overrated, but it’s going to be hard to win a campaign from the center out with this little support from elected officials. And of course he’s drawing dead without a huge increase in support from African-Americans. Neither of these things are static, of course, and there will presumably be some improvement if he wins Iowa, but…the fact that he performance with black voters in South Carolina hasn’t improved at all even as he’s moved into first place in Iowa suggests pretty strongly that it’s not going to be enough.

The more likely effect if Buttigieg wins Iowa is to foreclose the possibility of a moderate alternative to Biden surviving to Super Tuesday. Since I would strongly prefer any of the non-Bennet sitting senators currently running to Biden I’m not thrilled with that, but it is what it is.

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