CONCORD, New Hampshire — Pete Buttigieg was just hours removed from his strong showing in Iowa when he confronted a question about whether it would last.
Bruce Barnes, a 52-year-old white voter from Henniker, New Hampshire, pressed Buttigieg on what he was doing to improve his standing among voters of color who are critical to winning the Democratic presidential nomination.
“This isn’t just about how to win. This is about how to deserve to win,” Buttigieg responded before detailing at length his plans to invest in minority communities. “We’ve got to recognize that right now, this is two different countries, in so many ways, because of your race.”
The resonance of those comments will determine whether Buttigieg’s performance in Iowa was a blip or the beginning of a historic march to the Democratic nomination. Such a trajectory would almost certainly require Buttigieg to make dramatic inroads with black voters, who have largely sided with former Vice President Joe Biden in the early days of the contest. And with Democrats obsessed with finding a candidate who can assemble a multiracial coalition to defeat President Donald Trump in the fall, Buttigieg’s gap with minority voters is a glaring vulnerability.
“I’ve been following the polls, and from what I’ve heard, he’s not making too many inroads with that very important voting bloc,” Barnes said after the Buttigieg event. “We need to get the base electrified and get them out there.”
Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, faces stiff competition heading into Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders dominated the state during the 2016 primary, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is from a neighboring state and Biden is a well-known name.
But the biggest challenge will come later this month during the Nevada caucuses and South Carolina primary. Both states have significant minority populations, and Buttigieg has lagged in the polls there.
Buttigieg has faced pointed questions from black voters about his dismissal of South Bend’s first African American police chief. He’s also been criticized for his handling of the shooting death of an armed black man by a white South Bend police officer over the summer.
Buttigieg has argued the best way to start building credibility with nonwhite voters is to show he can win, and he pointed to his strong showing in Iowa.
“I do think having that proof point, even though we’ve got a lot of work to do ahead, it helps us open new conversations and get folks who may have been skeptical of the very idea of this campaign to take another look at us,” he told reporters Tuesday night in New Hampshire.
His campaign has also worked to signal he has support from diverse voters. On Sunday, Ryann Richardson, who is the reigning Miss Black America, joined Buttigieg on stage in Des Moines, Iowa. He was also endorsed by Quentin Hart, the black mayor of Waterloo, Iowa, the state’s most racially diverse city. Maryland Rep. Anthony Brown is the only member of the Congressional Black Caucus to endorse him.
In South Carolina, where roughly two-thirds of voters in the first-in-the-South Democratic primary are black, Buttigieg has been gradually assembling a team of younger black staff and supporters, including Walter Clyburn Reed, the grandson of South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn. A day after the Iowa caucuses, 10 black elected officials in South Carolina endorsed him.
Buttigieg will also likely need to expand his reach in the Democratic Party in other ways to win the nomination. In the Iowa caucuses, voters 45 and older, those with a college degree and self-described political moderates held majority shares among Buttigieg supporters, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of voters who said they planned to take part in Monday’s Democratic caucuses.
In New Hampshire, 20-year-old Annie Carr said she believes Sanders, not Buttigieg, is the candidate who appeals to “future generations.” She cited the 78-year-old Sanders’ positions on climate change and free college as reasons for supporting him. She said Buttigieg, whom she saw at an event earlier in the primary, is too moderate and seemed too scripted to win her support, though she said she’d vote for him if he’s the Democratic nominee.
AP VoteCast shows just 9 percent of voters in Iowa’s Democratic caucuses were nonwhite. Only Sanders stood out as a clear leader among that group, earning the support of nearly 4 in 10 nonwhite voters, according to VoteCast. Buttigieg’s performance with minorities was significantly lower and comparable to the performances of Biden, Warren and businessman Andrew Yang.
Associated Press writers Hannah Fingerhut and Steve Peoples contributed to this report.