Seasoned politicos are a bit taken aback by former Vice President Joe Biden’s strong numbers in a new Winthrop Poll in South Carolina, particularly among black Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters.
The poll showed he had support among almost half of African-American Democrats — a big number in a huge field of Democrats running for president. Among all Democratic registered voters and those who lean that way, the poll showed Biden was the pick of 37 percent of all South Carolina Democratic voters — more than 20 points higher than the next-closest candidate, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. And she was the only other candidate in double digits. Fifteen of 17 other candidates polled at less than 5 percent.
So what’s going on in the Palmetto State with Biden, particularly since polls in other early-voting states, such as Iowa and New Hampshire, show Warren neck and neck with the longtime front-runner?
First, Biden is familiar to many people in South Carolina. Not only has he visited many times through the years, but he has had deep relationships with everyone from U.S. House Majority Leader Jim Clyburn to the late U.S. Sens. Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings, both of whom had Biden as the eulogist at their funerals.
Second, he served as vice president for America’s first black president, a vitally crucial validator in South Carolina’s black community. As President Obama’s No. 2, Biden has almost universal name recognition and a carry-over effect here, where the minority vote makes a real difference, compared with almost lily-white Iowa and New Hampshire. In fact, black voters in South Carolina are a majority in Democratic primaries, which makes Biden’s poll numbers that much more impressive.
Third, Biden is a moderate, which tends to be more appealing in South Carolina, a much more conservative state than other early-voting states. Unionization rates are the lowest in the nation here. And some of the more progressive messaging — Medicare for all, $15-per-hour minimum wage and class-based rhetoric — tends not to do as well among voters.
But despite Biden’s popularity in the new Winthrop snapshot of voters, political waters are churning nationally with the mess involving impeachment and the inquiry of how Ukraine is involved with American politics. President Donald Trump, a master at deflecting people’s attention, is trying to get folks to focus on whatever Biden’s son did in Ukraine, not what the Trump administration did to get a foreign government to try to interfere with the 2020 U.S. election.
So far, Biden hasn’t seemed to respond effectively to reassure voters, particularly those who like him in South Carolina.
“He could be damaged from the impeachment inquiry and the negative publicity surrounding his son’s work in Ukraine,” said Gibbs Knotts, a College of Charleston political scientist. “Our research indicated that African-American candidates and Southern candidates were at an advantage in the South Carolina Democratic primary. (But) Biden is not African-American or a Southerner.”
Biden also could face a situation similar to that encountered by Hillary Clinton in 2008 when she was running against Obama. That year, Knotts said, “she polled well in South Carolina, but after Obama won the Iowa caucus, many South Carolina voters, particularly African-American voters, shifted allegiances from Clinton to Obama.”
Warren’s candidacy is surging elsewhere. If she continues to attract support, she could take Iowa and New Hampshire. She might lose South Carolina, but then if she does well on Super Tuesday — which is just three days after the S.C. primary — she could almost lock up the nomination. In 2020, 14 states — including all-important California for the first time — have primaries March 3. A Sept. 25 Los Angeles Times poll showed Warren at the top in California, 9 points ahead of Biden.
If Biden wants to win the nomination, his campaign needs to get back on track and push what has made him successful in the past: a moderate message of building economic opportunity so people can get good jobs and realize the American dream. If the former vice president’s campaigns continues to skirt around in the shadows as the political water torture of possible impeachment drags on, his dream of being president might just remain a dream.