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Pete Buttigieg Travels To South Carolina To Try And Reach African American Voters


Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is getting a second look from some voters, but the South Bend, Ind., mayor has struggled to get even a first look from others. That includes many African Americans, who dominate the crucial Democratic primary in South Carolina. Buttigieg traveled there to try to change that, and NPR's Don Gonyea was tagging along.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: It was homecoming weekend at Allen University, one of the nation's historically black institutions.


GONYEA: Among the tailgate parties outside the stadium was a gathering hosted by Pete Buttigieg. It was the start of a weekend for him to reach out to African Americans, who are the majority of Democrats in the state. The Buttigieg tailgate was small.


PETE BUTTIGIEG: All right. Everybody, I'll be brief. How's everybody doing?


BUTTIGIEG: Thanks so much for coming to join us. I'm so excited to be here in South Carolina. This is one of the most important places.

GONYEA: In South Carolina, Buttigieg has not been the rising star he has been nationally. People just don't know him. Seventy-four-year-old William Waters was at the game.

WILLIAM WATERS: I just met him. You know, we just talked briefly. That's all.

GONYEA: Your reaction?

WILLIAM WATERS: Oh, he's OK, you know?

GONYEA: His wife Wanda Waters then chimes in.

WANDA WATERS: Biden is our man.

WILLIAM WATERS: Biden is our man, but he's OK.

GONYEA: They like former Vice President Joe Biden because of his closeness to President Obama. Biden still holds a big lead in polls here. Buttigieg has other challenges in the state. In South Bend this summer, a white police officer shot and killed an African American man. At a criminal justice forum in Columbia Saturday, Buttigieg called for broad criminal justice reforms. The audio is from MSNBC.


BUTTIGIEG: And beyond what happened in an individual incident, part of why there's such anguish in a community when this happens is that it ties to a greater sense of fear and a wall of mistrust between communities of color, especially the black community, and those who are sworn to serve them.

GONYEA: The candidate then headed to an outdoor town hall in Rock Hill. It was big, the crowd nearly all white and very enthusiastic, far more so than the African American audiences he met with. Then, come Sunday, church.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Hope leading on...

GONYEA: Buttigieg spoke from the pulpit and alluded indirectly to the fact that he is gay and married. The candidate said that he and those gathered know what it's like to be questioned about belonging.


BUTTIGIEG: All of us must extend a hand to one another because I also know what it is to find acceptance where you least expected it and to find compassion where you most needed it.

GONYEA: That reaction was warm, but his campaign has looked at whether concerns about Buttigieg being gay would weigh more heavily with black voters in a conservative state. No one I talked to at the church acknowledged it being an issue. Here's 32-year-old Marcus Tolliver.

MARCUS TOLLIVER: I was extremely homophobic at one point, but then when you start to see people for them and not their - not flaws - differences, and I see people for who they are, it's just a maturity thing.

GONYEA: Another congregant, 54-year-old Carla Tanner, says it's mostly older voters who worry about a candidate being gay.

CARLA TANNER: But you got the new generation. It's freedom now, and you got so many people that go for the person itself and what he can bring to the table.

GONYEA: Afterward, Buttigieg told reporters he will simply lay out what his presidency would mean for voters.

Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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