For months, it had seemed as if former Vice President Joe Biden was likely to receive the lion’s share of African American support in South Carolina, but that is no longer the case. In fact, it’s unclear whether black voters across the country will line up behind one particular candidate. If they don’t, it could be harder for any one candidate to win the nomination outright, as black voters make up between a fifth and a quarter of the Democratic primary electorate and are often concentrated in delegate-rich districts, particularly in the South. Over the past three decades, a majority of black voters have backed the eventual Democratic nominee in every primary, too.
And with its majority-black primary electorate (61 percent in 2016), South Carolina is the first major test of how a candidate does with black voters. So after Biden’s disappointing fourth- and fifth-place showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, I headed to South Carolina to talk with voters about how they felt about Biden’s two losses. His campaign had long tried to downplay expectations in the first two states and pitch South Carolina as their firewall, but I wanted to better understand where South Carolina was leaning, and if Biden might be in serious trouble.
The answer, unfortunately, isn’t entirely clear. Both polls and my conversations with voters underscored that Biden does retain the bulk of support among black voters in South Carolina, but it’s clear his advantage has shrunk. Around the time I visited in mid-February, Biden’s support among all voters had slid about 10 points in our national polling average. And among black voters, his support has fallen from 43 percent before Iowa to just 31 percent after New Hampshire. Meanwhile, both former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Bernie Sanders have gained about 11 points among black voters in the same period. In fact, Biden and Sanders share nearly the same percentage of support among black voters now. (It’s unclear, though, how things have shifted after the Nevada caucuses. We only have two national polls conducted entirely after Nevada, and they show a muddled picture: One found Biden in the lead among black voters, and the other showed Sanders out in front.)
Recent South Carolina surveys have told a similar story of Biden losing black support, even though Biden continues to lead in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average and in most South Carolina polls. For instance, Biden led in a East Carolina University survey with 37 percent support just before Iowa, and he still led after Nevada with 31 percent. But among black voters, his support slipped from 44 percent to 34 percent. Biden also led in a South Carolina survey from CBS News/YouGov with 28 percent support, but again his support among black voters had fallen to 35 percent, a substantial drop from the majority support he had in a November 2019 CBS News/YouGov poll. And a Winthrop University poll put Biden even lower among black voters at 31 percent, even though once again he was the poll leader with 24 percent support.
Nevertheless, Biden could have a real lead in South Carolina that holds up despite a downward trend among black voters — FiveThirtyEight’s forecast gives him about a 3 in 4 (73 percent) chance of winning on Saturday.
One thing, for instance, the polls haven’t taken into account yet is the endorsement of House Majority Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn — the highest ranking African American in Congress and one of the most powerful politicians in South Carolina. Clyburn endorsed Biden on Wednesday, and his support could be a game changer for Biden, convincing some black voters to stick with him or even join him. However, a challenge for Biden, as political scientists and FiveThirtyEight contributors Chryl Laird and Ismail White wrote earlier this week for the Washington Post, is that his losses in Iowa and New Hampshire have weakened his position, making it more likely, they argue, that African Americans won’t coalesce around one candidate. Biden’s losses in the first two states, Laird and White write, have undermined his claim that he is the candidate most likely to defeat President Trump, and that might shake the confidence of many black voters who prioritize electability when deciding which candidate to support.
Polls like CBS News/YouGov’s recent South Carolina poll don’t show that the results in Iowa and New Hampshire have shaken how black voters feel about Biden — 47 percent said the early states didn’t alter his chances. But there was an overall shift: Thirty-nine percent of all primary voters in South Carolina said they did think the results in Iowa and New Hampshire made it less likely that Biden would win the nomination, as opposed to just 18 percent who thought they made it more likely (43 percent overall said it didn’t change things). And that uncertainty and indecision — although hard to pinpoint — was something that came up again and again with the voters I talked to.
The first Biden event I attended was at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina. There, Biden’s wife Jill spoke to a predominantly older African American audience, a group of voters Biden should do well with, given that older black voters (and older voters, generally) are more likely to support Biden.
Hilda Gadsden, a retired social worker and educator, was enthusiastic in her support for Biden, telling me, “He knows the players, is a senior statesman and is well-respected and respectful.” She and her husband Mac, who also planned to back Biden, had seen the former vice president speak at the National Baptist Convention in January, and Gadsden hoped to make the case for Biden to people in her network as president of the Woman’s Baptist Educational and Missionary Convention of South Carolina.
Yet others in attendance weren’t sure who they would support. Chuck Haynesworth came to the event with his wife and two little kids, and while he expressed admiration for the Bidens, he told me he was also considering billionaire Tom Steyer and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Tamisha Hill, an addictions counselor from the Charleston area, said she hadn’t made up her mind about who she was supporting, either. “There are a lot of different platforms, a lot of different issues. I’m trying to find one that speaks to me,” Hill said.
Ultimately, if black voters in South Carolina are split this year, no candidate may win over a majority of black voters during the whole primary. That might be especially good news for someone like Sanders, who has nearly as much support among African Americans nationally as Biden.
Sanders has already gained about 5 points in our South Carolina polling average since Iowa, and that has included more support from black voters. East Carolina University’s polling found, for instance, that Sanders’s support among black voters had climbed from 10 percent before Iowa to 22 percent after Nevada, while four other post-Iowa and post-New Hampshire surveys in the state found him attracting anywhere from 20 to 23 percent support. These gains have helped make Sanders more competitive in South Carolina, though our forecast gives him about a 1 in 4 (23 percent) chance of winning at this point — quite possible but not likely.
Anthony Carr, a Ph.D. student at the University of South Carolina who is black, told me at a Sanders event featuring actress Susan Sarandon in Newberry, South Carolina, that he was firmly behind the senator because he felt Sanders had kept firing on all cylinders since 2016. “Sanders continued to work for change and really helped with 2018,” Carr told me, adding that he was impressed that Sanders had helped a lot of women and people of color get elected.
Not everyone I spoke with at that event, though, was a committed Sanders supporter. Jaron Cannon, a fifth-grade math and science teacher, said he’d been more of “a Biden guy,” but now he ranked Steyer first, Sanders second and Biden third. Cannon told me he liked Sanders’s policies and even supported him in the 2016 primary, but the senator’s heart attack and potential inability to win over anti-Trump Republicans concerned him. Instead, he was sold on Steyer, who has invested heavily in the state, spending nearly $20 million on ads. “Steyer gives me a blend between Biden and Sanders,” Cannon said. “Steyer is middle-of-the-road and can pull in Republican votes to win.”
Steyer is a bit of a wild-card candidate. He’s currently third in our South Carolina polling average and, like Biden and Sanders, polls well among African Americans — in polls conducted since Iowa, Steyer has averaged 20 percent among black voters in South Carolina.
Yet it’s hard to know just how sticky that support is for Steyer, especially given his mediocre showing in Nevada — he came in sixth in the initial preference vote with 9 percent despite investing millions of dollars there. But he has an impressive ground game in the state, and while I was in South Carolina I visited his headquarters in Columbia. Upon entering the office, I noticed that nearly every staffer and volunteer was African American. Brandon Upson, Steyer’s national field director, told me that 51 percent of Steyer’s South Carolina staff were organizing less than 10 miles from their hometowns, and the campaign had worked hard to connect with local figures to build up support in disengaged parts of the black community.
But it’s not just Sanders and Steyer who might complicate the overall picture of black support in the Democratic primary this year. In fact, a bigger potential wild card is Bloomberg. He’s not on the ballot in South Carolina, but looking ahead to Super Tuesday, he’s polling pretty close to Sanders and Biden — or even ahead of Biden — in some states with sizable black electorates, like North Carolina, Texas and Virginia, although there’s some evidence that his national numbers have taken a dip after his first debate performance last week. Based on the polls, though, he’s still in a better position than Steyer to attract a sizable share of African American support on March 3.
There’s also a bit of a twist here for Biden. If he isn’t able to hold onto his edge among black voters in South Carolina and the black vote is, say, split, white voters in South Carolina may cost him the election. They only made up 35 percent of the Democratic primary electorate in 2016, according to the exit poll, but winning over at least a small share could still be critical in 2020. And recent polls show Biden might be in trouble on this front. Biden has trailed other candidates for first place among white voters in every poll conducted after Iowa, though his deficit has ranged from as little as 1 point to as much as 15. So similar to how it’s difficult to know just how shaky Biden’s edge with black voters is, the same is true of his struggles with white voters. But the extent of his advantage among black voters and disadvantage among white voters could greatly affect the outcome in South Carolina.
It’s possible, too, that the African American share of the primary electorate might be slightly smaller in 2020 than it was in 2016, because South Carolina uses an “open” primary. That means anyone can vote in the Democratic primary, regardless of party affiliation. And as we saw in New Hampshire, the lack of a contested GOP primary led some voters in the ideological middle to participate in the state’s Democratic primary. This made the primary electorate more moderate in 2020 than in 2016, which helped boost the performance of Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar — but notably, not Biden. And just like in New Hampshire, many independent or Republican-leaning voters are white.
Biden still performs better among moderate and conservative voters than liberals in most primary polls, so there’s reason to believe he’ll do just fine in South Carolina with this group on Saturday. But it’s also possible that, as was the case in New Hampshire, these more moderate white voters might break for someone like Buttigieg or Klobuchar instead. Add in a split black vote, and the situation could be not just bad for Biden, but maybe even really good for Sanders.
At the end of the day, though, who wins over black voters in South Carolina will still likely matter most, as that group will form the majority of voters on Saturday. But this year more than in previous years, it’s an open question as to whom South Carolina’s black voters might back. Of course, it’s possible that support for Biden is stronger than we realize, or that Clyburn’s endorsement of Biden on Wednesday after a fairly strong debate performance changes things at the last minute.
But at this point, it’s entirely possible that for the first time since 1988, the eventual Democratic nominee won’t win a majority of African American voters in the entire primary. South Carolina on Saturday will be the first major test.