Democrats Doubt Joe Biden’s South Carolina Lead Will Hold After Early State Losses

GREENWOOD, SC - NOVEMBER 21: Democratic presidential candidate, former vice President Joe Biden speaks to the audience during a town hall on November 21, 2019 in Greenwood, South Carolina. Polls show Biden with a commanding lead in the early primary state. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

A cadre of Democrats are beginning to doubt if Joe Biden’s dominating advantage in South Carolina will hold if the former vice president comes up short in the first three nominating contests.

Biden, who has been eclipsed by the likes of South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) in Iowa and New Hampshire, continues to dominate the Democrat field in South Carolina. Since announcing his candidacy in April, the former vice president has led in every single poll coming out of Palmetto State by double digits.

Biden’s standing among South Carolina Democrats was on display in a recent CBS/YouGov survey that found the former vice president leading his nearest challenger, Warren, by 28 percentage points. The former vice president’s dominance has been mostly fueled by strong support from black voters, who by most estimates will make up more than 60 percent of South Carolina’s primary electorate in 2020. An October poll conducted by Winthrop University indicated Biden was the favored candidate of 46 percent of black Democrats across South Carolina.

Such strong support from the black community is mirrored nationally and has remained unabated despite contentious revelations about the former vice president’s opposition to busing and his more recent praise of segregationist Democrats. Now some strategists wonder, however, if black voters will stick by Biden were he to falter in the first three nominating contests of Iowa, New Hampshire, in Nevada.

“The support won’t be there if he’s slipping,” a Democrat strategist told the Hill. “There’s just no way.”

The notion of Biden not winning, let alone landing in the top three in the Iowa Caucuses or the New Hampshire and Nevada primaries, seemed impossible when he first entered the race.

A poll conducted in Iowa only a month after Biden’s announcement, found the former vice president leading his rivals by nearly ten percentage points. Biden maintained that lead until early September, when news of his youngest son’s foreign wheeling and dealing took center stage in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. Since then, Biden has steadily fallen, most recently hitting fourth place in Iowa behind Buttigieg, Warren, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

Similarly, the former vice president has lost ground in New Hampshire, which at one point seemed like fertile territory given its large working class population. Polling conducted by Monmouth University in May had Biden commanding 36 percent of New Hampshire’s Democrat electorate, 18 percentage points more than his nearest rival. Now the former vice president finds himself firmly in fourth place behind Buttigieg, Sanders, and Warren, according to polling averages analyzed by Real Clear Politics.

Of the three early nominating contests prior to South Carolina, Nevada seems to present Biden’s brightest opportunity. The former vice president continues to hold a healthy lead over his rivals in the state, as much as ten percentage points according to a recent survey.

Although Nevada looks promising for Biden, the state is by no means a lock. Not only is Nevada a caucus state with its own intrepid procedures for gauging candidate support, but its Democrat electorate is heavily influenced by both former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and the heavily Hispanic Culinary Workers Union.

Reid, for his part, has opted against endorsing a candidate as of yet, in hopes of using his wide reaching political machine to play kingmaker down the line. Even though Reid has yet to make an endorsement, his former top Senate staffers have been openly critical of Biden.

Adding to the former vice president’s problems in Nevada is the likelihood that his moderate stand on immigration will be a nonstarter for many of the state’s Hispanic activists, including those belonging to groups like the Culinary Workers Union. The union, which represents more than 60,000 hospitality workers from 173 different countries, is both Nevada’s largest labor organization and its biggest immigrant advocacy group.

In recent years, the union has taken a more proactive stance on protecting its members from facing deportation or being subject to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids. Earlier this month, the union snubbed Biden, who has refused to end all deportations if elected president, in favor of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) with an invitation to address its membership.

Biden’s precarious standing in Nevada and his overall troubles in Iowa and New Hampshire pose the very real possibility that the former vice president will be running far behind by the time voters go to the polls in South Carolina. If that is the case, senior Democrats believe black voters will have no choice but to start considering other candidates, especially as momentum and media attention will be focused on those who finished at the top in the three early states.

“Savvy black voters will reassess their options,” Basil Smikle, a Democrat strategist, told the Hill when asked about Biden’s chances of keeping black voters in his column. “Every candidate will have to remake their case to, and reaffirm their policy prescriptions for, the African American community — Biden included.”

Complicating matters for the former vice president is that he has history working against him. In recent memory, only two candidates for either the Democrat or Republican nominations have gone on to win South Carolina after faltering in the first three nominating contest.

In both cases, John Edwards in 2004 and Newt Gingrich in 2012, the victories in South Carolina served as temporary aberrations. Not only did further wins fail to materialize, but both candidates were outflanked in the money and resources race by the eventual nominee, who had scored early and decisive victories in the first three contests.

Biden, himself, seems to understand that a loss in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada would likely impact his credibility as a candidate with black voters in South Carolina. As such, the former vice president’s campaign has made a massive investment of time and advertising in Iowa in recent weeks despite downplaying its chances in the state in September.

“Losing Iowa doesn’t mean we can’t win, but it makes winning the primary harder and more expensive,” Greg Schultz, Biden’s campaign manager, wrote in a recent fundraising email to supporters. “We still have time to turn this around … but not much.”

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