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Biden keeps large lead in SC's 2020 Democratic presidential primary

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Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a town hall at the International Longshoremen’s Association Hall during his campaign trip to Charleston on Sunday, July 7, 2019. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

COLUMBIA — Despite two shaky debates and some recent misstatements, South Carolina Democratic voters still prefer former Vice President Joe Biden in the South's first presidential primary.

Biden led Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren 36 percent to 17 percent in South Carolina, according to the latest Post and Courier-Change Research Poll.

His advantage dropped by only one point from the last poll taken two months ago. That was before the debates where Biden struggled in the face of pointed challenges about his political record on race as foes raised questions about his comment on working well with segregationists while in the Senate.

Biden has led all five Post and Courier-Change Research polls taken since February by an average of 22 percentage points.

His lead in South Carolina is the largest among the primary's early-voting states.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was third, at 16 percent, in the latest online survey of likely S.C. Democratic primary voters taken Aug. 9-12. Next in line was California Sen. Kamala Harris at 12 percent.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the race's surprise hopeful, took the biggest hit from the June poll, falling from third place to fifth with 5 percent. 

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who has held more events in South Carolina than any other candidate, remained in sixth place for the third straight poll at 4 percent.

Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, whose campaign has plastered billboards across the state, nabbed the last spot held by a candidate receiving more than 1 percent of support.

Former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke — once as high as fourth place in South Carolina — found himself with six other candidates, including businessmen Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang, polling at 1 percent.

The Post and Courier-Change Research poll surveyed 521 likely Democratic voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percent. 

The top six candidates have remained the same in the past three South Carolina polls dating back to May, suggesting voters have become comfortable with a set of front-runners in an unusually large Democratic field of 24 candidates.

That number should dwindle with higher polling and fundraising thresholds the candidates must meet to qualify for the next debate in September. Nine candidates have qualified so far.

While Biden remained in control, voter preferences could change in the six months before South Carolina primary voters go to the polls on Feb. 29.

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Consider voter priorities in the wake of recent mass shootings in Texas and Ohio. Gun rights replaced education as the second-most important issue for South Carolina Democratic primary voters in the latest poll. Health care remains the top issue.  

Biden has some weak spots. He lagged Sanders and Warren, the most progressive of the top candidates, among young voters ages 18 to 34 and he fell to second among white voters to Warren as more women threw their support behind the Massachusetts senator.

But the vice president under Barack Obama dominated among black voters, who account for more than 60 percent of ballots cast in South Carolina Democratic presidential primaries.

At 45 percent, Biden received three times as much African American support as Harris and Sanders. He used a trip to South Carolina in July to apologize for his remarks about working well with segregationists.

Biden's support among black voters did shrink by 7 percentage points from the previous Post and Courier-Change Research poll.

Still, Biden led in all regions of the state, especially in the Democratic-rich Charleston and Columbia regions. He also held a big lead among less-educated South Carolinians, a large bloc of voters.

He topped a category important to many voters in the 2020 race — beating Republican President Donald Trump. Biden nearly doubled the field in support among voters opposed to the president.

Yet, in a head-to-head race with Trump, the Post and Courier-Change Research survey of voters from both parties had Biden losing by 11 percentage points. That was the best projected performance of any Democrat in the field but was a sign of the Republican dominance in South Carolina, where a Democrat has not won a presidential contest since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Late Wednesday night, The Associated Press reported that John Hickenlooper was expected to drop out of the Democratic presidential primary on Thursday.

That's according to a person close to the former Colorado governor who wasn't authorized to speak publicly before the announcement and who spoke to the AP on Wednesday night on condition of anonymity.

Hickenlooper ran as a moderate who could unite warring factions of the country. But his genial, quirky style never caught on with a Democratic electorate hungry for a candidate who could take the fight to President Donald Trump.

By the end, Hickenlooper was on his second campaign team and struggling to raise money. He registered at 1% or lower in polls.

It's unclear whether Hickenlooper will now challenge Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, who is considered the country's most vulnerable Republican senator.

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