So there are strategic reasons for Mr. Buttigieg to emphasize faith. African Americans, especially women, are among the most religious voters in the Democratic Party. And there are entire suburbs full of educated, affluent, churchgoing conservatives — the kind Mr. Buttigieg likes to call “future former Republicans” — who say they would find it difficult to vote for President Trump again.
Mr. Trump has clearly noticed Mr. Buttigieg’s overtures to a constituency that is critical to his re-election (eighty-one percent of white evangelicals supported him in 2016). At a rally in a Miami megachurch last week, the president mocked Mr. Buttigieg, claiming he had become religious just “two weeks ago.” (Mr. Buttigieg responded: “I’m pretty sure I’ve been a believer longer than he’s been a Republican.”)
Convincing Americans to vote for a 37-year-old who is openly gay is a proposition that no major presidential contender has ever tested. And there are indications some are not convinced. His poll numbers with African Americans, for example, are minuscule, not even registering 1 percent in some surveys, though many say they don’t know enough about him to form an opinion. And his campaign’s focus groups have found his sexual orientation to be a hurdle with some black voters.
Without black support — a pillar of the Democratic Party base — it is virtually inconceivable that he could make it to the general election and get the opportunity to convert those wayward Republicans he talks about in such aspirational terms.
Still, Democrats who have watched their party gradually cede ground to Republicans on cultural issues believe Mr. Buttigieg fills a void on the left that is larger than many of them would like to admit.
“We made a mistake when we gave up the Bible and the flag,” said Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist, referring to the perception — encouraged by Republicans — that they are the true home for voters motivated by faith and patriotism. As a veteran who went to Afghanistan with the Navy Reserves and an Episcopalian who attends church nearly every Sunday, “Pete has both of those,” Mr. Sharpton said.
The Buttigieg campaign is investing in faith with more than just the candidate’s words. Last month it unveiled a $2 million advertising campaign in South Carolina, which prominently featured him quoting the Gospel of Matthew as an inspiration. “In our White House,” he says, as the camera cuts to a shot of a young black woman filming him with her phone, “you won’t have to shake your head and ask yourself whatever happened to ‘I was hungry and you fed me; I was a stranger and you welcomed me?’”