Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks during a town hall in South Carolina. | Sean Rayford/Getty Images
Joe Biden is blowing away his Democratic rivals in South Carolina, according to three new polls that show he’s the only candidate with outsize support from African-American voters in the first-in-the-South primary.
While the former vice president has lost ground in surveys of overwhelmingly white Iowa and New Hampshire, Biden is pulling in about a third of the overall primary vote in South Carolina. His lead there is powered by a 44 percent backing from black voters, surveys from Quinnipiac University and the University of North Florida released Monday show.
Another survey released Monday, from CBS News/YouGov, shows even stronger support from black voters in South Carolina. Biden receives more than half of his support from African-Americans and has 45 percent overall support.
His next-closest opponents in South Carolina are Sen. Elizabeth Warren, at 17 percent, and Sen. Bernie Sanders at 15 percent in the CBS poll.
In the Quinnipiac poll, Biden has 33 percent support and Warren and Sanders are at 13 and 11 percent, respectively. In the UNF survey, Biden registers 36 percent support, with Warren and Sanders tied at 10 percent.
The polls bolster claims by Biden’s allies that he’s the only candidate in the race who can point to a broad base of support with a pillar of the Democratic Party – African-Americans.
Their continued backing is essential to Biden’s bid — particularly in the South — since black voters could account for one-in-four total voters during primary season. High black turnout is also crucial to any Democrat’s chances in a general election.
While Biden is benefitting from his status as vice president to the first black president, his longstanding ties to South Carolina and the attacks on his character by Donald Trump have also reinforced his position, according to state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, a Democrat from North Charleston who is neutral in the race and has hosted numerous candidates in his majority-black district.
“Ironically, Trump has helped Biden here,” Kimpson said.
“People I talk to believe Biden doesn’t get a fair shake. And there’s some ownership of him. He has been friendly to our state. He was President Obama’s vice president. There’s sort of a feeling of kinship with him,” Kimpson said. “And people don’t like folk picking on their relative. They believe Joe is an uncle to our state. And Trump’s preoccupation and fascination with taking him out has resonated.”
Kimpson and the pollsters cautioned that the race is still fluid and anything can still happen. The surveys show that many voters have indicated they could switch their votes. There’s also a sizable pool of undecided voters, about a fifth of the state electorate
“If Biden goes into Atlanta in the debate this week and says something stupid, well, he can’t afford any major problems,” Kimpson said.
The newest polls are a gut-punch to the two African-American senators who have looked to the state as a springboard, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. They’ve premised their candidacies on doing well enough in Iowa, New Hampshire or Nevada in order to gain momentum and capture the support of South Carolina’s black voters — estimated to be as much as two-thirds of the primary vote in the state.
The senators’ calculus also counts on the implosion of Biden’s campaign, which has so far failed to materialize.
Harris only has 3 percent overall support in South Carolina and 6 percent support from black voters there, while Booker has 2 percent support overall and from black voters in the state, according to Quinnipiac’s survey. In UNF’s poll, Harris has 4 percent overall support and also from black voters, while Booker is at 2 percent in both categories.
UNF surveyed 437 Democratic voters by cell and landline phones for its poll, which has a margin of error of +/- 4.7 percentage points. Quinnipiac surveyed 768 likely voters by cell and landline phones. And CBS surveyed 933 Democrats in the state via internet-based web panels. CBS/YouGov did not provide detailed breakdowns of poll respondents by race.
The polls suggest South Carolina, the final early state to vote on Feb. 29, is an uphill climb for Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is the leader in a recent flagship poll in Iowa.
In the UNF survey, Buttigieg had 3 percent support overall and 1 percent support from African-American voters. In Quinnipiac’s poll, Buttigieg registered no support among black voters and was at 6 percent overall.
“It’s certainly a warning sign for all of the other candidates,” UNF political science professor Michael Binder said, referring to the preferences of black voters so far.
Binder cautioned that early polls like this will change as the campaign grinds on and candidates win or lose in the early states. But at the moment, Biden’s support shows how strong he is with black voters.
“Biden right now is the toughest kid on the block in South Carolina and until someone comes along and punches him in the nose, he’s going to stay that way,” Binder said.
Name identification is a major asset for Biden in South Carolina. Only 8 percent say they haven’t heard enough about him in Quinnipiac’s poll, the only to survey the leading Democratic candidates’ favorability ratings. Sanders is well-liked, too, but less so than Biden with only 9 percent saying they haven’t heard enough. The rest of the field remains largely unknown to South Carolina Democratic voters in the Quinnipiac poll, by anywhere from a fifth to half of voters surveyed.
“There’s definitely some familiarity with Joe Biden that is helping him. Voters in South Carolina know him and like him,” said Mary Snow, a polling analyst for Quinnipiac, who added that 24 percent of voters in the primary said electability was the most important issue for them and of them, 40 percent supported Biden.
The polls also show that California billionaire Tom Steyer is creeping up in South Carolina, where he has spent at least $7.5 million on TV and radio, about $1 million on Facebook and hundreds of thousands of dollars more on digital advertising and mail blanketing the state.
Steyer is at 8 percent in the UNF poll, 5 percent in Quinnipiac but only 2 percent in the CBS/YouGov poll.
South Carolina state Rep. Russell Ott, who endorsed Steyer, said he believes the race is “up for grabs” but that “Biden is the default candidate for many.”
“I believe that Tom Steyer matches up best against Trump in terms of the economy and bringing back rural America,” said Ott. “I’m unfortunately very concerned that Joe Biden is going to bring more baggage in the race than he is going to need long term to be successful.”
Ott also pointed out that Republicans won’t hold a 2020 primary and many in the state might cross over and vote in the Democratic race, making it potentially more unpredictable.
The Quinnipiac poll brings Steyer and entrepreneur Andrew Yang closer to the requirements for participating in the Dec. 19 Democratic primary debate, which is co-hosted by POLITICO and PBS Newshour.
Steyer’s 5 percent in the Quinnipiac poll pushed him across the required polling threshold to participate in the debate (candidates need to get 4 percent in four polls approved by the Democratic National Committee or 6 percent in two DNC-approved polls in early states). Steyer still needs to hit a donor threshold of 200,000 unique supporters, but his campaign was confident he would hit that mark before the Dec. 12 deadline.
Yang hit 4 percent in the Quinnipiac poll. This is his third qualifying poll toward the December debate and his campaign has said he has already exceeded the donor mark.
The other billionaire who is expected to enter the race, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has upside-down approval numbers, with 16 percent viewing him favorably and 26 percent unfavorably in the Quinnipiac poll.
The Quinnipiac poll also reveals the long odds facing Deval Patrick, Massachusetts’ first black governor, who jumped into the race last week after opting against it months ago, robbing him of time, campaign contributions, an easy-to-assemble staff or debate appearances.
“[Patrick] has his work cut out for him in introducing himself to voters,” said Snow. “Nearly 8 in 10 likely voters say they haven’t heard enough about Patrick to form an opinion of him.”
In North Charleston, state Sen. Kimpson said he doesn’t understand the math for Patrick at this late date.
“Deval Patrick is an excellent candidate … a year ago,” Kimpson said, spelling out the ellipses as “dot, dot, dot” to emphasize how too much time has passed. “I don’t know how he’s going to do it.”
Zach Montellaro contributed to this report.