Former Vice President Joe Biden has suffered back-to-back poor showings in the first two states to vote in the Democratic primary, and there are now serious questions about whether his "electability" argument is still plausible.
Now in South Carolina, where Biden has consistently led in polls, he increasingly faces competition from rivals who sense that his campaign is stalling weeks before the state he's described as his firewall heads to the polls. If Biden concedes that his fourth-place finish in Iowa was a "gut punch," and fifth in New Hampshire was a "hit," failure to win South Carolina's primary may be a blow he's not able to recover from.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and the billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer are both challenging Biden's standing in South Carolina. And fresh off of strong performances in both Iowa and New Hampshire, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is adding more staff in state ahead of the Feb. 29 primary — the first contest in the South and the first to feature a heavily black electorate.
Biden is still a front-runner in South Carolina and enjoys a sizable loyal following in the state. Though there's been limited reputable polling recently — especially as his fortunes have faltered elsewhere this month — Biden holds a 12-point lead, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average, with Steyer in second and Sanders third.
His supporters in the Palmetto State say that the results in Iowa and New Hampshire will do little to change minds in South Carolina.
"That doesn't represent our state," said Tina Herbert, a longtime supporter, as she waited for Biden to speak in Columbia Tuesday night. Biden skipped his New Hampshire primary rally, heading to South Carolina early.
Other candidates, Herbert said, had yet to show meaningful support among black and Latino voters, who play a larger role in South Carolina, Nevada and many of the more than a dozen states that cast ballots on Super Tuesday, March 3.
"We do have to get a better picture of the different states and really see if some of the new folks have really penetrated the minority votes," she said. "I know what some of the polls have said today, but I'm interested in seeing what the voters say when it's time to vote."
In his own remarks, Biden reiterated his case that Democratic candidates should be judged after the first four states vote, not the first two. After bursting into the room to the strains of Jackie Wilson's "Higher and Higher," he implored South Carolina voters to give his campaign a much-needed lift.
"We're moving into an especially important phase because up 'til now we have not heard from the most committed constituency in the Democratic Party, the African American community, and the fastest-growing segment of society, the Latino community," Biden said.
Black voters make up roughly two-thirds of the Democratic primary electorate in South Carolina, and through his years in public service, the former vice president has forged strong ties both in the state and with African Americans nationally. But a new Quinnipiac University poll shows Biden's support among black voters nationally is slipping, compounding questions about his core argument.
The question is now whether the relationships he has cultivated — in many cases for decades — will still translate into votes.
"Joe Biden is no stranger. He doesn't need to do the same things that Pete Buttigieg or Tom Steyer or [former New York City Mayor] Michael Bloomberg does in South Carolina. We know him," said state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, who represents a majority-black Charleston district and is supporting Biden's campaign.
Kimpson has argued that his state's pragmatic voters are seeking a "return to normalcy," for which Biden is the best option.
A pointed challenge from Steyer
Many rivals to Biden who have emerged from Iowa and New Hampshire with stronger performances have shown limited capacity so far to resonate with nonwhite voters, which could foretell trouble for them as the primary moves through Nevada and South Carolina, and later the diverse slate of Super Tuesday states.
The billionaire Steyer has been flooding South Carolina with radio and television commercials, as well as an aggressive direct mail campaign. He has visited the state more than a dozen times and has upwards of 90 staffers on the ground. His wife, Kat, is moving to the state, according to The Associated Press, with plans to remain in South Carolina through the duration of the primary.
Tameika Isaac Devine, the mayor pro tem of Columbia, is considering Steyer, among other candidates. She praised his campaign for spending time in parts of the state that other candidates might dismiss.
"They've put their money where their mouth is. That's why it's funny when I hear people say he's trying to buy the election," Devine said of Steyer. "It's not different than what he's done in the past. Both he and Kat have been trying to build communities, which I think is admirable."
Tensions between Steyer and Biden flared during last week's Democratic debate, after Biden backer Dick Harpootlian, a former South Carolina Democratic Party chair, accused a state lawmaker of endorsing Steyer because he had been paid by the campaign.
During the debate, Steyer demanded an on-stage apology from Biden, one Biden did not offer. Instead he said that he has more support from South Carolina's Black Caucus and black community than anyone else in the race.
State Sen. Kimpson was dismissive of Steyer's efforts and spending in the state, and said he did not believe Biden's support to be in jeopardy.
"We've got armies of folks down here prepared for this street fight, and it will be a fight," he said. "Tensions have escalated. We won't be swayed in our support for somebody we know, and that's Joe Biden."
Biden supporters say they expect him to win in South Carolina, but to do so, his campaign needs to mount an aggressive presence in the weeks before the vote.
"He cannot just assume that he has it," supporter Herbert said of Biden. "You still have to do your due diligence. He's just gonna have to get out there and knock on doors and get that personal contact. We're Southerners. We like attention."