ROCK HILL, S.C. (CN) – Joe Biden has retained his lead over Democratic primary rivals in South Carolina, a new poll shows, but support for the former vice president is plummeting as Senator Bernie Sanders is closing in.
The Winthrop University poll released Friday is based on surveys of 443 South Carolina residents who are likely to vote in the state’s Feb. 29 presidential primary contest.
Biden holds the top spot among Democratic candidates in the Palmetto State with 24% support, according to the poll. But he is trailed closely by Sanders, who now has the backing of 19% of South Carolina Democrats.
Billionaire Tom Steyer sits in third place with 15%. Former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg polled at 7%, compared to 6% for Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar has the support of 4% of South Carolina voters, according to the poll, and Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard has just 1%.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg – who participated in his first debate this week, in what was widely seen as a poor performance – is not on the South Carolina ballot. Voters’ first chance to weigh in on Bloomberg’s candidacy will come on Super Tuesday, March 3.
Winthrop’s survey is one of nearly 20 threshold polls that are used by the Democratic National Committee to determine which 2020 candidates qualify for debates.
“Flames seem to be licking through the cracks in Biden’s firewall,” Winthrop Poll Director Scott Huffmon said in a statement accompanying Friday’s results.
In the time since the university last conducted a poll in September, Biden’s support has fallen by double digits. At that time, he had a 20-point lead with 37% support among voters.
South Carolina, which will host the first primary election in the South, has been especially supportive of Biden compared to other states. Since the launch of the 2020 election cycle, the state has hosted a deluge of town halls and other campaign events held by Democratic candidates vying for the critical support of those voters.
“Without a strong showing in South Carolina, Biden’s campaign will be limping into Super Tuesday,” Huffmon said. “Even a win, if not significant and decisive, will be interpreted as a loss by his opponents.”
Pollsters say Biden’s lead could be even narrower than it appears in the latest numbers, because 18% of South Carolina voters said they are still undecided just over a week away from the primary election. In addition, a whopping 43% of likely voters said that they could change their minds about the candidate they currently support.
The beneficiary of Biden’s fall has been Sanders, the Vermont senator whose support among African-American voters in the state has doubled since the last poll. Among the state’s black voters, 31% said they favor Biden, compared to 17% for Sanders and 18% for Steyer. However, 40% of African-American respondents said they could change their minds before they go to the polls.
One of the main issues in the Democratic debates is the question of who stands the best chance of beating President Donald Trump in the November election.
In South Carolina, 44% of survey respondents said their main objective was to beat Trump, and 45% said the Democratic nominee sharing their views is the most important factor — a nearly equal amount. The poll also found that candidates’ gender and sexuality are basically a nonissue for those voters.
Winthrop’s polling, which was paid for through university funds, was conducted via phone calls from Feb. 9 to 19. The results have a 4.7% margin of error overall, and a 5.9% margin of error for African-American respondents.