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Why Tom Steyer suddenly looks competitive in South Carolina

Tom Steyer on state of 2020 race

Billionaire Tom Steyer's long-shot candidacy for the Democratic nomination received a boost this week when a Fox News poll indicated he has surged to second place in South Carolina. The state's first-in-the-South primary, which will be held on February 29th, is seen as a crucial test of support among African American voters for the Democratic candidates. 

Steyer has managed to consistently qualify for Democratic debates despite his relative obscurity. But he's still registering at 3% or less among Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire, according to the CBS News Battleground Tracker poll, placing him well behind the front-runners in the states where the first two nominating contests will be held. 

And while the Fox News poll has him at 15% support in South Carolina, an 11-point rise since October, he's still 21 points behind former Vice President Joe Biden in the state. Still, the poll had him as one of only three candidates registering support in the double digits, alongside Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. 

So why is Tom Steyer suddenly looking competitive in South Carolina?

He's spending a lot of money there

The former hedge fund manager recently told CBS News that he's gaining momentum because his emphasis on taking on big corporations and tackling climate change resonates with voters. But he also benefits from his massive spending in South Carolina, where he's growing his campaign infrastructure and attending signature events while some of his other rivals have focused more rivals focus on Iowa and New Hampshire. 

It's not uncommon to see Steyer's face on the billboards that sit alongside South Carolina's major highways, and a truck with a huge monitor projecting a video message from him has been sighted at political gatherings throughout the state. 

He's also spent nearly $15.2 million on ads in the state, according to Kantar/CMAG, a group that tracks political ad spending. To date, that number exceeds the total national spending of every Democratic candidate except for former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, another billionaire. 

In South Carolina, Steyer's spending dwarf that of his competitors. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has spent the second most on the state, but is currently on track to spend only $1.5 million there so far according to Kantar/CMAG data.

His campaign is growing

Steyer entered the race in July, which gave him a relatively late start. But as CBS News has previously reported, his campaign has scaled up quickly. 

According to Steyer's South Carolina spokesperson, Tiffiany Vaughn Jones, his campaign now has 82 paid staffers on the ground in the state – the most of any presidential campaign. And while some observers have noted that Steyer's team is generally less experienced than that of other candidates, his South Carolina state director Jonathan Metcalf notes that they've already outlasted a number of other campaigns.  

"The conventional wisdom has been that certain people that were supposed to have already won in it, have already dropped out," said Metcalf, who has worked on previous presidential campaigns in the state. "You have to go directly to the voters in South Carolina and meet them where they are and Tom's message talks to people in a different way about what their experience is."

He's keeping it local

Steyer has spent 12 days in the state since launching his campaign and has returned for numerous high-profile events, including the cook-off held by longtime Democratic leader Betty Henderson in October and an environmental justice forum hosted by the National Black Caucus of State Legislators in November.

Metcalf told CBS News that Steyer's team is able to speak to local issues in the state, such as access to clean drinking water in rural areas. 

"No one has to tell our folks…how Tom's message fits with the people that live in their community," said Metcalf. "They understand that climate change is a concept but dirty water in Bamberg, and dirty water in Dillon, and dirty water in Greenwood are real climate environmental justice issues."

Now that Steyer has secured his spot on the debate stage for the seventh Democratic debate in Iowa on Tuesday, he says he will use the platform to continue to tell voters who he is and how he's different from his Democratic competitors. 

"Everybody else on that stage is a career politician," said Steyer. "I'm an outsider and I'm somebody who's been taking on the corporations, and you can trust me to really go after them."

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