SUMTER, S.C.—During a low-key breakfast meet and greet with voters the day before the South Carolina primary, 18-year-old Forrest rose and asked Tom Steyer a question: he was undecided between the race’s three frontrunners—Steyer, Joe Biden, and Sen. Bernie Sanders—so why should he support Steyer?
It was a typical question, but Steyer being ranked among the frontrunners is a distinctly South Carolina phenomenon. So far, the hedge fund billionaire has earned marginal levels of support in the first three states, and he’s basically a blip on the radar in the Super Tuesday states that vote next.
But Steyer has spent the better part of his campaign for president camped out in South Carolina, pouring an enormous amount of his time and resources—most of it from his own personal fortune—toward winning over Democratic voters in the first-in-the-South primary, 60 percent of whom are African-American. If polls and on the ground buzz are any indication, his effort has been fairly successful.
The irony of a California billionaire whose campaign’s unofficial logo is a tartan-pattered necktie—he refuses to wear anything else—becoming a prince in this crucial early state is not lost on his supporters.
Steyer, said Sumter native Derek Quarles, 32, “is the only one who’s been speaking our language,” rattling off the candidate’s policy proposals on reparations for slavery and funding historically black colleges and universities. However, when he first met Steyer, said Quarles, “I’d never thought he’d come to South Carolina and be a leading contender for president of the United States.”
But contender he is—at least, of course, in South Carolina. And the candidate seems to fully love back the state where his asterisk status in the rest of the country melts away anytime he visits.
“I’ve been to South Carolina more than any other candidate,” said Steyer, answering Forrest’s question. “I love the people I’ve met in South Carolina… My wife moved here.”
His stump speech is full of talk about health care and foreign policy but also poor drinking water in the town of Denmark or gentrification in Charleston. His supporters, wearing Tom 2020 shirts and wearing black buttons that say “IMPEACHED”—Steyer funded a major public campaign to impeach President Donald Trump—responded enthusiastically to the amped-up billionaire candidate who’s rarely at a loss for words on the stump and sometimes can’t help but shout into the mic.
It’s that kind of intense attention to local issues—particularly issues that impact the African-American community—that have allowed Steyer to climb in the polls in South Carolina. In recent weeks, his support has crested as high as 18 percent in some surveys, still trailing Biden but edging out the actual front-runner for the nomination, Sanders.
His outreach and fine-tuned pitch aside, the sheer scale of Steyer’s financial investment in the state has been staggering. He has spent over $13 million on ads alone, blanketing TV airwaves and the internet.
Several supporters told The Daily Beast those ads were money well spent. William Anderson, 55, who works in manufacturing, said he first heard of Steyer when he ran a TV ad last summer touting his support of term limits for members of Congress.
“Every nine to 11-year-old can tell you more about Tom Steyer than you ever want to know,” joked Gibbs Knotts, a professor of political science at the College of Charleston who has written a recent book on the South Carolina primary. “You can’t watch a YouTube video [in the state] without Tom Steyer talking about the economy.”
That lavish spending was on display more intimately at Steyer’s breakfast in Sumter, a mid-sized city in the center of the state where the roads into town are lined with blue “Tom 2020” signs. On Friday morning, a few dozen voters gathered in an elegantly restored historic home, greeted with a generous spread of free eggs, bacon, and grits, free swag, and a large, friendly contingent of volunteers and staff.
No matter how Steyer does in Saturday’s primary, he will be walking into a buzzsaw on Super Tuesday, shredding the parallel reality of his front-runner status in South Carolina. He made an explicit plea to voters on Friday to help his finish in South Carolina to matter, despite the threat of a surging Sanders and the presence of another big-spending billionaire, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who’s applied a similar media-saturation approach but in a dozen states.
“South Carolina gets to reset this race,” he said. “South Carolina gets to decide that maybe what we want is a Democrat at the head of the ticket for the Democratic Party, as strange as that may seem. I believe South Carolina can show that I can pull a diverse party together.”
Williams, for one, was concerned that Steyer might not sustain momentum. “It worries me,” he said. ”I hope people will do as I’ve done, and give him the full benefit of consideration.”
Steyer may have come closer to picking up one new supporter, at least, on Friday morning. Forrest, the high-school senior who asked Steyer why he should support him, said he was satisfied with the answer—especially on climate change.
He was still undecided, he told The Daily Beast as he darted to get a selfie with the candidate, but he was leaning “strongly” toward him.