Raleigh, North Carolina (CNN)Pete Buttigieg had a plan heading into February: Turn a strong performance in Iowa into enough momentum to compete in New Hampshire, notch a strong showing in Nevada and survive South Carolina.
By winning the most delegates in Iowa and placing within a few percentage points behind Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire, the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor successfully implemented the first two steps of that plan. But he also placed a distant third in Nevada and got trounced in South Carolina, finishes that highlight the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor’s persistent issues with voters of color.
Looking ahead to March — and especially Super Tuesday — Buttigieg’s path toward the nomination is far narrower than just one month ago. This has forced the candidate to confront the real possibility that, without a significant change in the state of the race, his campaign may be coming to an end.
Buttigieg conferred with advisers on Saturday night about his path forward. But he also told supporters in Raleigh, North Carolina, that he is “proud of the votes we have earned, and I am determined to earn every vote on the road ahead.”
His uncertain path ahead was even clear when he met with Jimmy Carter in Plains, Georgia, on Sunday. After the former president lauded Buttigieg, he remarked: “He doesn’t know what he’s going to do after South Carolina.”
The problems for Buttigieg are particularly acute right now. The former mayor had long dealt with pressure from the left and Sanders, but former Vice President Joe Biden‘s rise also puts pressure on him from the party’s center, where scores of the donors that had long backed Buttigieg are eying Biden as a more viable option.
The challenges for Buttigieg’s strategy rest on three unexpected realities: A severely delayed result out of Iowa, Sen. Amy Klobuchar‘s boost in New Hampshire and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg‘s more forceful presence in the race ahead of the Nevada caucuses.
“There’s still a lot of oxygen being sucked up in the race,” said Mike Schmuhl, Buttigieg’s campaign manager. “When you stack all those people (running) up, there’s not a lot of space or not a lot of wiggle room for any campaign to operate. And so, we’re kind of in a crunch right now between South Carolina and Super Tuesday.”
Buttigieg aides argued for months that the former mayor, by showing he could win in Iowa, would be able to convince skeptical voters across the country that he was a safe bet and his poll numbers in South Carolina and nationally would begin to surge in the back half of the month. Many aides likened it to what happened to Barack Obama in 2008, where a win in Iowa catapulted him to not only electoral success, but a surge of money.
That hasn’t happened. Buttigieg finished far behind Biden in South Carolina, national polls have found him hovering in the high single digits for months and his campaign is lowering expectations heading into Super Tuesday.
“The path has tightened and is tightening for everyone,” said a top Buttigieg aide at the end of February. “That is definitively true, but don’t think that is unique to our campaign.”
The aide continued: Buttigieg “knows where we are. He has been aware of this for a long time.”
The uncertain state of Buttigieg’s campaign was clear in the final days before the South Carolina primary, where the candidate spent the week trying to do something he has been unable to do for the better part of a year: Establish a reliable foothold with black voters.
With a distant fourth-place finish, he wasn’t able to do that.
The competitiveness with which the Buttigieg campaign approached Iowa, where the mayor barnstormed the state by often headlining five public events in a single day, was long gone in the days leading up to the South Carolina primary. Instead, Buttigieg spent his days headlining at most three events, with some being invite-only roundtables where the audience was, exclusively, the media.
Now Buttigieg’s campaign is turning its focus to Super Tuesday, where 14 states across the country will vote and award roughly a third of all available delegates.
The former mayor’s campaign is lowering expectations, telling reporters that its focus is on strategically deploying resources across the country and hoping to rack up delegates by at least meeting the delegate threshold — 15% — in key congressional districts.
“Our goal is to minimize Sanders’ margins on Super Tuesday and rack up delegates in the March 10th and March 17th contests, which are much more favorable to us,” the campaign wrote in a memo that was used as a fundraising pitch on February 25.
Buttigieg’s campaign is also not as flush with campaign cash as it was months ago.
Money is still consistently coming into the campaign, said a source with knowledge of the campaign’s fundraising, with the campaign raising above its daily average over the last few days. But the campaign’s federal election reports have shown Buttigieg’s operation is quickly spending whatever money it brings in — and then some.
According to his financial filing for January, the former mayor entered February with $6.6 million in the bank and spent 227%