Buttigieg's "gay problem" with Black voters is probably a mirage

This is one trope we’ve been hearing ever since Pete Buttigieg got into the race. Mayor Pete will have trouble gaining support with Black voters because he’s gay. (And trust me… I’ve heard this from Democrats, not just conservatives.) That topic is something of a landmine for obvious reasons, but the fact he really is doing very poorly among African-American primary voters keeps breathing life into the theory.

I’ve heard two schools of thought that seek to explain the phenomenon. One holds that Black voters tend to be more religious and hold somewhat conservative views in that regard, and they object to the whole gay marriage subject on moral/religious grounds. The other argument holds that the Black community is simply less tolerant of gay people in general, which sounds like a pretty offensive generalization.

The Associated Press decided to tackle that subject this week, with a focus on the upcoming South Carolina primary. The title of their article is rather blunt, to say the least. “In SC, Buttigieg faces black voters wary of a gay candidate.” To steal a catchphrase from George Takei… Oh, my! But the further you read into their report, the more they seem to undermine their own premise. In fact, they cite a recent poll taken among voters in the Palmetto State and there was almost no difference between Black and white voters when it comes to tolerance for an LGBTQ candidate.

A poll commissioned by Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, this month found that it made no difference in the decision-making to 79% of African American voters if a candidate for president is gay. The number was only slightly lower than white voters. Conversely, 16% of black voters said they’d be less likely to support a gay candidate, slightly higher than white voters, at 13%. But in a primary race with several candidates, that small percentage could make a major difference in the outcome.

Buttigieg is appealing for the support of black voters in part as a person guided by Christian faith and in part as a matter of inclusiveness. That approach worked among Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s vastly white electorates, where he finished in the top two. A poor showing in South Carolina, where black voters could make up two-thirds of the Democratic primary electorate, might suggest that he cannot win over black Democrats.

Am I missing something here? In the same article where they claim that Mayor Pete may “struggle” to muster support with Black voters, they cite a poll saying that 79% of them don’t care if he’s gay. That’s within the margin of error for the percentage of white voters saying the same thing. The same goes for those who openly admit they have a problem with it. (16% among Black voters, 13% of white voters.) How is race factoring into this equation at all? You might as well just say that roughly 15% of South Carolina voters are uncomfortable with a gay candidate.

There is one possibility that comes to mind and it speaks to the wording of the actual poll questions. They asked, “if a candidate is openly gay, does that make you more likely to support them, less likely to support them, or makes no difference in whether you support them?” Other polling outfits frequently include a second question when asking about perceived bias. It’s usually along the lines of “do you think your friends, family and neighbors would have a problem supporting…” (fill in demographic group here.)

You tend to get more respondents saying no to the first question but yes to the second one. (“Hey, I’m not a racist, but man, a lot of my neighbors are.) That’s because most people don’t want to openly admit to having any biases along those lines. This poll didn’t do that, but without those figures, we’re just speculating. And, again, that could apply equally to Black or white voters.

There is, of course, an alternate theory as to why Mayor Pete’s support in the Black community is so low. I’ve never heard it brought up at the debates and it’s rarely mentioned on cable news because they’ve tended to treat Buttigieg with kid gloves. But I’ve heard it a lot on social media. A lot of Black voters probably don’t have a problem with him because he’s gay. Their problem is that his history with African-American residents in South Bend wasn’t exactly spectacular. He fired a Black Cheif of Police for dubious reasons (if any) and literally bulldozed large sections of predominantly Black neighborhoods. Word got around about those stories and people didn’t seem to react well.

There just doesn’t seem to be any hard data available to pin this down, but the “Blacks don’t like gay people” trope doesn’t seem to hold up well. Mayor Pete clearly has a problem attracting support from African-American voters, but I would suggest he created it himself.