Former Vice President Joe Biden dominates the 2020 field throughout the South, according to a series of new polls out of the region.
Biden, who has seen his lead shrink nationally amid controversy over his praise of segregationists and long-held opposition to busing, appears to have maintained his support in the South as evidenced by a number of new polls conducted by NBC News and SurveyMonkey.
In Mississippi, the former vice president takes nearly a majority of the vote with 47 percent when polled against the rest of the field. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT), who took second place in the poll, only received 21 percent. Trailing behind were Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) with 8 percent and 7 percent, respectively. Surprisingly, the poll found Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), one of the lesser-known but more moderate candidates, in fourth place — tied with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg — at 3 percent. Apart from Marianne Williamson, all of the others polled at 1 percent or lower.
Biden likewise tops his fellow White House hopefuls by double digits in Alabama. Polling from the state shows the former vice president pulling in 36 percent support, more than 21 points ahead of his nearest competitor. Far behind was Sanders, who at 15 percent barely edged out Harris — 13 percent — for second place. Warren landed in fourth with 9 percent. The 19 other candidates fell below the 7 percent garnered by the poll’s “no answer” category.
The frontrunner holds smaller but still significant leads in Georgia and Tennessee. In the latter, Biden took 33 percent compared to 18 percent for the runner up, Warren. Coming in third, albeit within the margin of error, was Sanders at 13 percent, followed by Harris with 12 percent. Buttigieg rounded out fifth place with 6 percent among voters in the Volunteer State. Bennet, once again, surprised by taking 2 percent, beating out more known and better-funded candidates like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX).
Meanwhile, in Georgia, Biden led the field with 31 percent support among respondents. Harris polled second at 15 percent, with Warren (13 percent) and Sanders (12 percent) close on her heels. Buttigieg was far behind in fifth with 5 percent, just barely surpassing former entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who polled at 4 percent.
The polls were conducted between July 2 through July 16 by surveying about 1,000 voters — Tennessee (1,092), Georgia (1,196), Alabama (1,005), and Mississippi (1,171) — in each of the states. The Mississippi and Georgia polls have a margin of error of +/- 4.2 percentage points, while the Alabama and Tennessee polls have a margin of error of +/- 4.4 and +/- 3.9 percentage points, respectively.
The polling is good news for Biden. Since 1988, no candidate has won a majority of the states in the South and lost the Democrat nomination. The region’s large population of black voters, who make up a plurality of the Democrat electorate in most Southern states, wields significant power over the primary process.
In 2016, Sanders was dealt what many believed a fatal blow in the South Carolina primary when black Democrats overwhelmingly backed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Sanders lost the state by a whopping 47 percentage points and faced calls to drop out of the race.
A similar situation played out on Super Tuesday when Clinton swept every Southern state on the ballot by nearly 30 points. Overall, Clinton’s lock on the South, accompanied by wins in delegate-rich California and New York — as well as the help of a “few” superdelegates — assured her the nomination.
Some have noted the irony, that while the South has tremendous sway in the nominating contest for Democrats, relatively few of the states will wind up in the party’s column come election day. The axiom was especially true in 2016 when President Donald Trump expanded on the majorities other Republicans had received in states like Tennessee, South Carolina, and Alabama. Although Democrats have made strides, flipping Virginia and building inroads in Georgia, they are still at a significant disadvantage in the region.
Considering how early it is in the primary cycle, it remains to be seen if Biden will endure as the candidate of the South. It is further unclear if the designation will be enough for him to capture the nomination, given the expansive field, which recently swelled to 25 contenders.
Complicating matters for the former vice president is the continued controversy for his praise of the “civility” of two segregationist Democrats, the late Sens. James Eastland (D-MS) and Herman Talmadge (D-GA). Biden invoked the two men, who dedicated their careers to halting the progress of civil rights, at a fundraiser in New York City last month while touting his ability to forge “consensus” in Congress.
The remarks, which were controversial in their own right, only served to underscore his 40-year record of opposing busing to desegregate public schools. Harris was quick to rebuke the former vice president over the issue at the first Democrat presidential debate.
“It was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing,” Harris said. “There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bussed to school every day. That little girl was me. So I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate. … We have to take it seriously.”
The sharp criticism left the frontrunner reeling to respond. In fact, weeks after the debate, Biden is still struggling to properly explain his opposition in a context acceptable to his party’s increasingly left-leaning base.
There is indication, however, that the former vice president’s standing has already diminished because of the controversy.
A poll conducted by IPSOS and Reuters shortly after the debate found that Biden’s support among black voters had shrunk by half since a similar survey was taken in June. Similarly, the Morning Consult found his support among the African American electorate dropped by 8 percentage points, while Harris’s improved by nearly the same margin.
A similar trend was noticeable in national polls. At the same time that NBC News conducted its polls in the South, it surveyed 15,529 adults from across the country. The results showed Biden leading the field by single digits at 25 percent. Sanders and Warren were not far behind in a dead heat for second at 16 percent each. Harris followed with 14 percent, trailed by Buttigieg at 8 percent. The poll has a margin of error of +/- 1.2 percentage points.
The results mark a stark difference from where the field was one month ago. A national poll conducted by Politico and the Morning Consult a week before the debate had Biden leading the field with 38 percent support.