According to the RealClearPolitics average of Democratic primary polling data, former Vice President Joe Biden is the clear favorite in South Carolina, where he enjoys a 19-point advantage over the rest of the field.
According to multiple Democratic strategists who talked to The Hill, however, Biden's South Carolina firewall could crack if he underperforms in early states.
In recent weeks, the former vice president's main primary competitors Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg have been surging past him in Iowa and New Hampshire, which could complicate the race.
Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist who served as a campaign aide to 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, explained how Biden underperforming in Iowa and New Hampshire could hurt his chances in South Carolina.
"Savvy black voters will reassess their options," she said.
"Every candidate will have to remake their case to, and reaffirm their policy prescriptions for, the African American community -- Biden included," Smikle added.
"The support won't be there if he's slipping. There's just no way," another strategist added.
With the field as crowded as it is, and with multiple strong candidates, the primary could go in nearly any direction, suggested professor of political science at Southern Methodist University Cal Jillson.
According to Jillson, Biden may have a path to the nomination even if he doesn't win in either of the early states, as long as he remains competitive.
"If two different people win in Iowa and New Hampshire and Biden is close and competitive, then South Carolina could buoy him up and send him into Super Tuesday with some momentum," he said.
However, if Biden underperforms in the two early states, "sentiments could shift quickly against him," according to Jillson.
A longtime Biden ally dismissed these concerns, arguing that the former vice president has a special connection with African American voters in South Carolina. The ally also dismissed "boy mayor" Pete Buttigieg, who has been surging in Iowa, arguing that the young Democrat cannot connect with black voters.
Biden's connection with African Americans in South Carolina, the ally said, "can certainly endure him finishing in a jumble of candidates at the top of the heap in Iowa and New Hampshire."The Biden campaign appears to be aware of the risks involved in losing in the early states, given that the former vice president has embarked on an eight-day tour. Biden is holding rallies and town halls, touring the Hawkeye State to reconnect with voters.
The former vice president will visit 18 Iowa counties, in what appears to be an attempt to revive his White House bid after missteps and difficulties with funding.