Campaign

Biden breaks away from 2020 pack in South Carolina

Joe Biden has broken away from the pack in South Carolina, maintaining a crucial early lead that could function as a failsafe for the former vice president's primary campaign.

With the Iowa caucuses roughly two weeks away, the race in the Hawkeye State is knotted among four candidates: Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

And recent polls in New Hampshire and Nevada, the second and third states to vote, respectively, show a similar conundrum, with Biden competing for first place with at least one other candidate.

But he has largely broken away in South Carolina, the fourth early voting state and the first in which black voters make up a majority of the Democratic electorate.

A Fox News poll this month showed Biden leading the pack in the state with 36 percent support among likely Democratic primary voters, a more than 20-point lead over the second-place candidate, billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer. Among black voters in the state, Biden registered 43 percent support, while Steyer notched 16 percent.

"Biden has the African American support here, and that support is not just wide; it's deep," said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist.

Biden's lead in South Carolina could begin to collapse if he performs worse than expected in the first three states. But for now, his allies see the Palmetto State as a friendly territory for the former vice president that could act as a springboard for his campaign heading into Super Tuesday, when voters in 14 states, including California and Texas, will head to the polls.

That doesn't remove pressure on Biden in other early primary and caucus states, said Caitlin Jewitt, an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Tech, since the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29 may be too long to wait in the nominating contest if he underperforms in Iowa and New Hampshire.

But Jewitt added that the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries could have less significance in 2020 than in years past when they traditionally acted as kingmakers. 

"I think 2020 has the potential to be different, in large part because we have four candidates who are neck and neck in Iowa," Jewitt said. "It's also possible that a different candidate wins Iowa and New Hampshire. If that happens, we don't necessarily have a front-runner."

Jewitt said that such a circumstance would make South Carolina even more important for Biden.

"If he can win South Carolina by big margins, then that's good media coverage the day or two before Super Tuesday," Jewitt said.

Bernice Scott, a former Richland County councilwoman and the founder of the activist group Reckoning Crew, which has endorsed Biden, said that the former vice president's support in South Carolina owes in part to years of politicking in the state, even before former President Obama tapped him as his running mate in 2008.

Unlike other candidates, she said, Biden is a known quantity in South Carolina - and his relationship with Obama certainly doesn't hurt.

South Carolina's significant African American population sets it apart from other early primary and caucus states, such as Iowa and New Hampshire, which are predominantly white.

"You have to build relationships, and over the years, not only with President Obama, Vice President Biden has always been an advocate for rural communities and people of color," Scott said. "Not only black people but everybody."

Biden's outsize lead in South Carolina has made him a key target for rival campaigns, including that of Sanders, who gained the lead in a landmark poll of Iowa Democratic caucusgoers this month and is seen as one of Biden's fiercest rivals.

In an op-ed published this week in The State newspaper, Nina Turner, a former Democratic state senator in Ohio and co-chairwoman of Sanders's campaign, argued that Biden had "repeatedly betrayed black voters to side with Republican lawmakers and undermine our progress."

"In standing with Sanders over Biden, we will declare that we are not going backward - we are going forward into a future of empowerment and equality for all," Turner wrote, pointing to Biden's past support for so-called "tough on crime" legislation and a 2005 bill tightening bankruptcy rules as evidence that he had worked against the interests of black voters.

Scott scoffed at Turner's claims, suggesting it was condescending to black voters in South Carolina.

"A black woman who doesn't live in South Carolina is telling black people what they should or shouldn't do?" Scott asked. "We don't play that game here."

To be sure, the state of the race remains fluid, and even Biden's allies concede that South Carolina isn't foolproof. In the Fox News poll this month, nearly half of the respondents surveyed - 48 percent - said they could still change their minds on who they will support before the primary.

Even so, Biden appears to have the firmest support in the state. Fifty-nine percent of those voters who are supporting the former vice president said they will definitely vote for him, while only 39 percent said it's possible that they'll change their mind, according to the Fox News poll.

"I wouldn't say he's got a lock on it, but I think he's well positioned to come up first, minus any stumbles or bumps or bruises," Seawright, the Democratic strategist, said.

Biden is expected to travel to South Carolina on Monday for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally at the statehouse in Columbia, an annual event that has become a key stop for Democratic presidential candidates.

He won't be alone, however. Sanders is also set to attend the rally.

Outbrain