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Election Update: Biden Holds A Narrow Lead Over Sanders In South Carolina (We Think)

With Nevada now in our rearview mirror, the Democratic nomination race quickly moves to South Carolina and its “First in the South” primary. For Democrats, the South Carolina contest is principally about the preferences of black voters, who will make up a majority of the primary electorate there. This makes the state especially important for former Vice President Joe Biden, who is counting on strong black support to shore up his position in the nomination race, though his standing among black voters has deteriorated since Iowa voted.

We’ve gotten a handful of new South Carolina polls in the past few days, and Biden now leads our South Carolina polling average with about 30 percent, with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in second at 23 percent and billionaire activist Tom Steyer — who has been spending millions on ads in South Carolina — at 13 percent. But we only have one new survey of the state conducted entirely after the Nevada caucuses, so South Carolina polling does not fully take into account Sanders’s dominant win this past Saturday. (We don’t even have much polling conducted entirely after last week’s debate.)

So let’s run through the South Carolina surveys released over the past week to get a fresh look at where things stand five days out from Saturday’s contest (starting with the most recent ones):

  • On Monday, Public Policy Polling provided us with our first post-Nevada survey in South Carolina, and it painted a rosy picture for Biden. Biden led the field with 36 percent, Sanders was in a distant second at 21 percent, and no other candidate had more than 8 percent. After we account for house effects — the tendency for pollsters to consistently have more favorable or unfavorable numbers for some candidates — this survey entered our model as one that gives Biden 34 percent and Sanders 23 percent.
  • Late on Monday, NBC News/Marist College also released a new poll in South Carolina, albeit one conducted just before Nevada voted. This poll showed a much tighter race, with Biden leading at 27 percent among likely voters, Sanders in second with 23 percent and Steyer in third with 15 percent.
  • CBS News/YouGov released a poll on Sunday conducted up through Saturday — the same day as the Nevada caucuses — and also found Biden in the lead with 28 percent. Sanders came in second at 23 percent, Steyer had 18 percent, Sen. Elizabeth Warren had 12 percent and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg had 10 percent. CBS News/YouGov has typically shown favorable numbers for Warren, so the model treated this as about a 9 percent result for her.
  • Winthrop University, the only South Carolina-based pollster the Democratic National Committee has accepted for debate qualifying polls, released a new survey last Thursday that showed Biden with a narrow edge 5-point edge over Sanders, 24 percent to 19 percent. The only other candidate in double figures was Steyer with 15 percent. After accounting for house effects and the national trend, this poll went into our model as a tie between Biden and Sanders at 23 percent. But one difficulty with this poll is that it was conducted over an 11-day period, from just before the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9 to Feb. 19.
  • UMass-Lowell dropped its first South Carolina poll of the cycle last Wednesday, and also found Biden with a narrow 2-point lead, 23 percent to 21 percent, over Sanders. Steyer came in at 13 percent while both Buttigieg and Warren attracted 11 percent support. But the combination of the pollster’s house effects and the national trend led our model to view this as a 2-point lead for Sanders instead of Biden.
  • Lastly, Change Research released a South Carolina poll on Wednesday, too, in partnership with The Welcome Party and conducted right after New Hampshire voted on Feb. 11. Biden and Sanders tied for first with 23 percent while Steyer was just behind with 20 percent and Buttigieg received 15 percent. Once we adjusted for house effects and the national trend, this survey went into our model with Biden leading by 4 points over Sanders. While Steyer remained about the same, we also discounted Buttigieg’s support quite a bit down to 10 percent.

For the most part, the consensus among these polls is that Biden holds a narrow lead in South Carolina over Sanders, with Steyer somewhere not that far behind. And in our latest South Carolina forecast, Biden has a 2 in 3 chance (64 percent) of winning the most votes. Sanders has a 1 in 3 chance (34 percent), and Steyer has a 1 in 50 chance (2 percent).

[Our Latest Forecast: Who Will Win The 2020 Democratic Primary?]

While Biden might hope that the Public Policy Polling survey is a sign of things to come in the post-Nevada period, the fact that Steyer’s overall support is so low in that poll, and Biden’s backing is so high among black voters — 50 percent — makes me a bit skeptical. Again, other polls — nationally and in other states — have shown Biden losing quite a bit of ground among black voters since Iowa. But we’ll see what other pollsters have to say over the next few days — we’re at an incredibly fluid moment in the race, with debates or primaries/caucuses every few days. (In fact, there’s a debate Tuesday night in South Carolina!) There’s still lots of time for things to change.

Outside of these South Carolina polls, we also have a couple of new national surveys to mention here as well, including one conducted right after Nevada:

  • The post-Nevada poll came from Morning Consult, which released a one-day survey conducted on Sunday. The poll found Sanders leading with 32 percent, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg at 19 percent, Biden at 18 percent and both Buttigieg and Warren at 11 percent. Compared to the pollster’s survey from right after the Las Vegas debate, no candidate had a shift outside the margin of error of plus-or-minus 2 percentage points. Morning Consult has pretty sizable house effects for some candidates, decreasing all three of the leading candidates’ totals to some extent, so the model considered it a 28 percent poll for Sanders, 17 percent for Bloomberg and 15 percent for Biden.
  • Along with their South Carolina survey, CBS News/YouGov also put out their first national numbers of the cycle.1 The poll found Sanders in first with 28 percent and Warren in second with 19 percent, then Biden at 17 percent, Bloomberg at 13 percent and Buttigieg at 10 percent. However, Warren’s numbers once again shrunk after accounting for house effects down to 16 percent. On the other hand, Bloomberg’s final number increased to 15 percent.

Speaking of the national picture: We definitely need more post-Nevada data, nationally and in South Carolina, but FiveThirtyEight’s latest overall forecast continues to show Sanders is the unequivocal front-runner for the Democratic nomination. He has nearly a 1 in 2 chance (46 percent) of winning a majority of pledged delegates by the time voting wraps up on June 6 in the Virgin Islands. The next-most likely outcome is that no single candidate wins a pledged delegate majority, which has about a 2 in 5 chance (41 percent) of happening. Tellingly, no other candidate has better than a 1 in 10 shot of winning a majority of pledged delegates. Biden is closest with a 1 in 12 chance (9 percent), while Bloomberg has a 1 in 30 shot (3 percent). Both Warren and Buttigieg now have less than a 1 percent chance.

Now we’ll just have to see if Biden can turn things around with a win in South Carolina and make the nomination race more competitive or if Sanders can get a potentially decisive win in the Palmetto State.

Confidence Interval: The Biden campaign is doing just fine


  1. Not to be confused with the weekly national survey from The Economist/YouGov.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.