Joe Biden’s 2020 Firewall: Former VP Dominates Across the South

Vice President Joe Biden has a smile for supporters after he addressed a grassroots rally, Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
AP Photo/Jim Mone

Joe Biden might have lost his frontrunner status in the polls, but the former vice president still dominates among primary voters in the South—assuring him a place in the 2020 contest until at least after Super Tuesday.

A number of new polls in recent days have shown the former vice president narrowly trailing Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) in the first two early voting states of New Hampshire and Iowa. Likewise, a recent survey out of Nevada, the third state on the primary calendar, indicates Biden and Warren are tied in what is expected to be a close and expensive race.

Biden’s descent from frontrunner has coincided with concerns over the candidate’s fitness for office both from an ethical and health standpoint. The latter arose after Biden made a series of high profile lapses, including forgetting the name of his former running mate, Barack Obama, on the campaign trail over the summer. The former concern results from revelations the former vice president’s youngest son, Hunter, heavily profited from dealings at the intersection of politics and business.

Despite the concerns about Biden’s candidacy and his drops in the polls, the former vice president is likely to remain in the 2020 race until at least Super Tuesday given his strong showing in the South. A slew of recent polls indicate that although Biden is declining nationally among Democrats, his standing in states like South Carolina and the delegate-rich Super Tuesday states of Texas and North Carolina has remained stable.

South Carolina, in particular, appears to be Biden’s to lose. The former vice president has led his competitors among the state’s Democrat electorate since entering the presidential race in April. A recent poll conducted by Winthrop University between September 21 and September 30 indicated Biden had the support of 37 percent of all Democrats in South Carolina. Trailing in second place was Warren with 17 percent, followed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) in third with eight percent. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) rounded up the top four with seven percent support.

Victory in South Carolina would give the former vice president significant momentum heading into Super Tuesday, when 14 states, including seven from the South, will hold their primaries. In total the seven Southern states will have more than 670 delegates up for grabs on Super Tuesday — more than a third of the 1,885 required for a candidate to win the nomination.

Of the seven, Texas and North Carolina will have the largest number of delegates on the ballot, nearly 350. Polling has shown Biden leading by large margins in both states. In Texas, a recent poll by Quinnipiac University found the former vice president the favorite among Democrats with 28 percent of the vote. Biden edged out Warren, who garnered second place with 18 percent, by double digits. He also bested the state’s two favorite sons, former Congressman Beto O’Rourke (12 percent) and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro (three percent), handily.

Similarly, Biden dominates the race in North Carolina. A September survey by High Point University indicated the former vice president had 31 percent support among Tar Heel Democrats, followed by Sanders with 20 percent. The survey found Warren in third place with 15 percent, trailed by Harris at six percent. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg rounded out the top five with three percent support.

Even if Biden were only to sweep the Southern states on Super Tuesday and fail to gain traction elsewhere, it is unclear if he would drop out given the size of the field. Were no candidate to have a sizable plurality of the delegates, Biden could opt to remain in the race, especially as the primary calendar following Super Tuesday is dotted with delegate-rich contests below the Mason-Dixon line.

Florida, in particular, with its 248 delegate, is the biggest contest after Super Tuesday that could entice Biden to remain in the race. A poll, conducted in the state between September 15 through September 18 by Tel Opinion Research, found the former vice president a resounding favorite with 37 percent of the vote. Warren was far behind in second place with 18 percent, followed by Sanders at nine percent. Harris and Buttigieg rounded out fourth and fifth places with six percent and five percent respectively. The poll found more than 20 percent of primary voters still undecided about which candidate to back.

Biden similarly tops his competitors in Georgia, which holds its primary the week after Florida. Polling conducted by Change Research in mid-September found the former vice president holding a comfortable lead over Warren, 33 percent to 22 percent. Troubling for Warren, however, was that she marginally edged out Sanders, who was favored by 19 percent of Peach State Democrats, for second place. The poll showed Buttigieg and Harris tied for fourth place with seven percent each.

A Biden win in Georgia, with its 120 delegates, would boost the former vice president’s campaign heading into early-April, when conservative-leaning states like Louisiana and Wisconsin hold their primaries.

Overall, Biden’s standing across the South is good news. Since 1988, no Democrat has won a majority of the states in the South and gone on to lose the 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 some states like South Carolina, African American voters make up nearly 60 percent of the primary electorate.

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.

Biden’s team appears to be hoping a similar strategy can work in their favor. In recent weeks, the former vice president’s campaign has begun downplaying his chances in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, while simultaneously shifting resources to Super Tuesday states.

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