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Despite turbulence elsewhere, Biden remains runaway favorite in South Carolina

Democratic candidates debate in Atlanta
Democratic candidates debate in Atlanta 02:37

Former Vice President Joe Biden may be having some trouble in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the first two contests of the Democratic primary will be held next year. But in South Carolina, home of the first-in-the-South primary, he remains the runaway favorite. 

The latest CBS News Battleground Tracker shows Biden ahead by only 3% as the first choice for nominee in Iowa and New Hampshire. However, in South Carolina. he has enjoyed a double-digit lead in state polls for months. In the November Battleground Tracker he outpaced the field by 28% as Democrats' first choice for nominee in the state. In a Quinnipiac University poll released this week, he's up by 20 points. 

"I can remember Biden coming to South Carolina and doing major political events in the early '80s and throughout all of the time since then," said former South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Don Fowler. "His friendship among people in South Carolina is real in the black and the white community."

Biden officially filed for the South Carolina Democratic primary alongside the state's Democratic Party chair during a stop at a local soul food restaurant in Abbeville Friday afternoon. While leaving, he was asked whether he felt confident about his lead in the state, particularly among black voters.

"I've always had overwhelming support in my whole career from the African-American community and actually, I do feel pretty confident."

CBS News spoke with more than a dozen political leaders and voters to explore what Biden's current lead means in South Carolina and how his strength in the state plays into his chances of securing the nomination.

"His prior relationship with two of our previous U.S. Senators, the fact that he's been to South Carolina many times, and certainly the fact that he served as vice president, all of those variables increases name recognition [and] make people feel comfortable with his candidacy," said Heyward Bannister, the South Carolina political director for Bill Clinton during the Democratic primary in 1992.

Fowler, who is a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, says that Biden's supporters have been "resilient" and "loyal" so far. He also notes that "a great portion of the African American community" has helped sustain his current frontrunner status.  

South Carolina is a key test of candidates' support among black voters, a central component of the Democratic Party's base. In 2020, black voters are expected to make up as much as 60% of South Carolina's Democratic primary electorate.

"The dynamics are different, the constituencies are different, and the urgency for African Americans to participate becomes even higher when you get to Southern states starting with South Carolina," said CBSN Contributor and Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright. "Black people will not only decide who our next nominee will be but they will have a large say so on who will be the next president."

Since 1976, no Democratic presidential candidate has ever won the nomination without placing at least second in Iowa or New Hampshire. South Carolina has only officially been a part of the early state lineup since the 2008. But both presidential candidates who have won the state's Democratic primary since gone on to win the party nomination.

CBS News Contributor Robby Mook says that while it's important for a candidate to win in Iowa or New Hampshire, the field is more fluid this cycle and many delegates are won in the first three weeks of March.

"For someone like Biden, who comes to this with universal name recognition, with deep political contacts, and a commanding position within the field, there's absolutely a rationale that he can capture momentum in South Carolina and spring forward into March," said Mook, Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign manager. "I think the driving question is going to be who can defeat Trump? And I think people's conception of that is going to evolve over time."

"If you look like a winner, sound like a winner, you act like a winner, it can impact voters' perception," said Bannister, Clinton's 1992 strategist. "And of course, how well you perform certainly impacts your fundraising too and your fundraising can impact the resources you have to organize."

Biden has been outrun by some other leading contenders when it comes to fundraising in recent months, but he raised $5.3 million in October alone. In recent weeks, he's received criticism from contenders who say his views on super PACs have shifted just enough for a group of his wealthy backers to form one of their own to support him, "Unite the Country," which registered with the Federal Election Commission last week. 

Other Democratic hopefuls, meanwhile, have sworn not to use super PACs, which can spend unlimited funds to back a candidate so long as they don't coordinate with any campaign. 

During a strategy call with senior campaign officials and journalists in September, Biden's national team said that South Carolina and Nevada, another early state with a diverse electorate, were top priorities. Earlier this month, the team doubled down on another call, arguing that they're "the one campaign that doesn't have to win Iowa" because of Biden's "broad" appeal across voting groups. But during an interview with CNN days later, Biden said that he thinks he will do better than expected in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Kendall Corley, who was a regional political director in South Carolina for Obama in 2008, is now the state director for Biden. He maintains that while the "ground game" strategies haven't changed so much since then — traditional door-knocking, for example, remains a key component — Biden has a different objective. 

"It's more maintenance and growth more so than trying to introduce and expand," said Corley. "For Vice President Biden, relationships again are going to carry the day and to his advantage even more so [than] for Obama, he has those relationships and has had them for years." 

To this point, Mook said that the true test will be in the solidity of Biden's support. 

"The question is 'how hard is Biden's support in South Carolina?' If it's rock hard, nothing's going to change that," says Mook. "If those voters are still open-minded and are concerned about electability, there's every reason their minds can change and that's why people focus so much on doing well in those first two early states."

"Unless there's some sort of crack in the firewall," added Seawright, "unless there's some sort of air let out of his political tires in the African-American community, I don't see how his car does not continue to go down the road down the political highway."

After a town hall at Lander University in Greenwood, where anti-deportation protesters disrupted an event on Thursday evening, CBS News spoke with voters about Biden's performance. Two undecided student voters said that if they had to vote today Biden would "probably" be their choice, citing his respectful nature of handling the situation with the protesters, his knowledge, and his personal connection with the crowd. And other voters said that while they were undecided before the event, Biden's performance had won them over. 

"Watching Joe Biden [tonight], I swung strongly in favor of Joe," said Katelynn Bell, who traveled with her parents from Augusta, GA for the event. 

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