Even though he's not in the race, former Vice President Joe Biden leads a new poll of South Carolina voters looking at likely 2020 presidential candidates, followed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and California Sen. Kamala Harris.

The poll from California-based Change Research and shared with The Post and Courier also found nearly two out of three Republican voters want a South Carolina GOP presidential primary in 2020 even if President Donald Trump is the only candidate. The results come after chatter arose about the state party not holding a primary as Trump aims for a second term. 

After the top three Democrats, the poll found significant support for just three more hopefuls: New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke.

All other likely candidates — including Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar — received less than 2 percent of support.

The poll, taken over the weekend, included 1,485 S.C. registered voters who identified as Democrats, Republicans and independents. Only the 600 voters who planned to cast a ballot in the 2020 primary Democratic primary were asked about the candidates they preferred. South Carolina primaries are open to all voters.

Sixteen Democratic presidential candidates — 10 of whom are considered major prospects — have announced bids or exploratory committees for the Democratic nomination.

Biden is not among them.

Yet Biden received 36 percent of support in South Carolina — double that of Sanders (14 percent), who ran in 2016 and entered the race Monday, and Harris (13 percent), who recently made her first S.C. visit since announcing.

Booker and Warren, who have announced bids, along with O'Rourke, who has not joined the race, hovered around 10 percent. The Change Research poll's margin of error for the 2020 Democratic race is plus or minus 4 percent. 

One of Biden's closest allies in South Carolina, 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate James Smith, said he "believes it's not a question of if but when" on the occasional Palmetto State vacationer getting into the election.

Smith, a former state lawmaker now working with the University of South Carolina, said he is advising Biden's representatives on campaign staff to hire in South Carolina. No announcement date has been set.

"Joe has always been an adopted favorite son of South Carolina," Smith said. "Across the spectrum, he is respected and loved here."

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Biden led polling among men and women as well as white and black voters and independents. He also led in all metro areas and in all age groups with the exception of 18- to 34-year-olds, who favored Sanders. Pollsters said 57 percent of Democratic respondents were black, close to matching the portion of African-American voters who make up a S.C. Democratic presidential primary. 

Top concerns among S.C. Democratic voters were health care, voting rights and the economy, Change Research found.

The top issue for Republicans was, by far, illegal immigration followed by gun rights and the economy. Independents said their chief worries were illegal immigration, the economy and ending corruption. 

Among Republicans who are considered possible primary foes for Trump, only former Gov. Nikki Haley drew significant support against the president with the 720 Republican voters in the poll who said they would vote in a GOP presidential race.

Haley, who has said she has no plans to run in 2020 after leaving the United Nations, still loses to Trump by a large margin — 67 percent to 21 percent, according to the poll. Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, the only Republican to take steps to fight Trump in a primary, got just 3 percent of support to Trump's 90 percent.

The poll found 62 percent of S.C. Republicans want a 2020 primary even if Trump is running unopposed. Nineteen percent favored calling off the GOP primary because it is "just an opportunity for (Trump's) opponents in the party to hurt him and it will save the state money to just have a caucus instead."

State Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick has hinted about not holding a primary because of the support Trump enjoys among the GOP. The state party's executive committee is expected to take a vote at the end of the summer.

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Columbia Bureau Chief

Shain runs The Post and Courier's team based in South Carolina's capital city. He was editor of Free Times and has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Charlotte, Columbia and Myrtle Beach.