ALLENDALE — Soon after Pete Buttigieg arrived for a meet-and-greet with a few dozen mostly black voters in this small community south of Columbia, the county's Democratic Party chairwoman confronted him with the central question that has hung over his presidential campaign.
"I hear a lot about how you don't have support from African Americans," Willa Jennings said to the South Bend, Ind., mayor. "I just want to know why."
After entering the Democratic race for president as the little-known mayor of a relatively small Midwestern city, Buttigieg stunned political observers by surging to the top of the crowded primary field in the mostly white early nominating states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
But with less than three months until the South Carolina's "First in the South" primary, Buttigieg continues to face more difficulty gaining traction among African American voters, who comprise about two thirds of the state's Democratic electorate.
So Buttigieg returned to the Palmetto State this week for more in-depth conversations in black communities as he tries to change that.
"I know a lot of African American voters have felt not only kicked around by the Republican Party but sometimes taken for granted by the Democratic Party that knows how to come to church just before an election but doesn't always come back and engage the community when it's most needed," Buttigieg responded to Jennings.
"So I know that as somebody who's new on the scene, I've got to earn that trust and we've got to have those conversations," he added.
Buttigieg held a series of roundtables on the minimum wage and healthcare in Charleston and on black entrepreneurship in Round O before greeting voters in Allendale and taking a tour in Orangeburg of South Carolina State University, the largest of South Carolina's eight historically black colleges and universities.
The more intimate events marked a departure from the large rallies Buttigieg held at other moments of the campaign, a choice he said was intentional.
"One of things we're finding is they allow for a different kind of dialogue," Buttigieg said. "There's more of a chance to listen, learn and engage and to reach out to communities that we haven't yet connected with."
State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, came away impressed by Buttigieg after a health equity roundtable Sunday at Fair Deal Grocery in Charleston's East Side neighborhood, praising him for coming to "unfamiliar territory ready to engage on one of the more material issues in the African American community."
But Kimpson said Buttigieg may need to talk in more detail about his record in South Bend, as well as his plans for the presidency, if he hopes to assuage some black voters who may be concerned about the 37-year-old candidate's level of experience.
Stay up-to-date on which 2020 presidential candidates are visiting the Palmetto state with The Post and Courier's tracker. Continually updated as candidates campaign in South Carolina in the months leading up to the state’s February 2020 primary.
"Many of us are just learning how to pronounce his name," Kimpson said, echoing a common refrain from many of the voters at Buttigieg's events. "So his challenge is to be able to make the connection and the case in the short time period that we have before we go vote."
Buttigieg faced questions about his mayoral record during the Allendale stop. South Bend councilwoman Sharon McBride, who joined Buttigieg on the S.C. trip, touted Buttigieg's efforts to raise the minimum wage for city employees and provide more funding for affordable housing in the city budget.
As Buttigieg is quick to note, he is not the only candidate who has yet to pick up substantial African American support. Former Vice President Joe Biden, by far the most well-known contender in the field after decades in politics, has maintained a significant lead over the entire rest of the field with black voters in South Carolina.
But Buttigieg has also drawn particularly sharp complaints from some critics for his approach to the black community.
Black publishers in South Carolina slammed him for declining to invest in significant advertising, saying it displayed "the audacity of white privilege." A list of S.C. endorsers for his "Douglass Plan" to address racial disparities included some who told The Intercept they didn't expect to be on it.
Most recently, The Root published a scathing criticism of comments he made in 2011 citing a lack of role models for black children rather than focusing on structural gaps — a piece that was distributed widely enough that several attendees at his S.C. events Monday said they had read it.
Buttigieg has sought to combat the narrative of his struggles with black voters by upping his investments in South Carolina.
The latest trip coincided with the release of Buttigieg's first television spot airing in South Carolina, part of a planned $2 million advertising blitz in the state that the campaign launched last month. The ad's message of unifying the country overlaps with footage of Buttigieg meeting with a cross-section of racially diverse voters.
He has hired 40 campaign staffers in South Carolina, led by African American operatives, and opened four offices in the state. His S.C. field organizers include Walter Clyburn Reed, a grandson of South Carolina's most influential Democrat, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia.
"There's certainly value to having been on the scene for a very long time, but I don't think that there's any one candidate who has a monopoly on the ability to connect with black voters, to offer answers and to earn that kind of support," Buttigieg told reporters in Allendale. "That's our focus in the days and weeks ahead."