What Biden's South Carolina primary win means for his 2024 chances

President Biden meets with UAW members on Friday in Warren, Mich.
President Biden meets with UAW members during a campaign stop on Friday in Warren, Mich. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Facing nominal opposition in a state where he has long been a favorite among Democrats, President Biden won the 2024 South Carolina Democratic primary Saturday night by a wide margin.

The Associated Press called South Carolina for Biden at 7:23 p.m. EST, shortly after the polls closed there.

Biden’s easy win over self-help author Marianne Williamson and Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips is not surprising. Thanks to a primary electorate heavy on Black voters and Southern moderates — two of his strongest constituencies — the Palmetto State revived the campaign of the former Delaware senator and two-term vice president in 2020 after consecutive losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, propelling him to the nomination.

Four years later, as an incumbent with no major challengers, Biden was always expected to win the primary. But the victory still tells us something about Biden's strengths and weaknesses as he prepares for the general election in November.

Why it matters

According to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll, former President Donald Trump now holds the narrowest of leads (45%) over Biden (44%) in a hypothetical general-election matchup. Previously, Biden led Trump by several points in all but one Yahoo News/YouGov survey conducted between late 2022 and the fall of 2023. Since then, however, the two have been locked in a statistical tie. The November election is likely to be close.

For months, anxious Democrats have feared that Biden’s advanced age (he’s 81) and America’s confusing post-COVID economy would continue to depress his approval ratings, sapping liberal enthusiasm and creating an otherwise unavailable comeback opportunity for Trump — a candidate who was impeached twice and is now facing 91 felony charges in four separate criminal cases, two of which center on his unprecedented attempt to cling to power after losing the 2020 election.

The same Democrats have speculated about — and even hoped for — an alternative nominee to ride to the rescue.

But only Phillips and Williamson opted in — and now, with his win in South Carolina, Biden has effectively ensured that he won’t go down in history as the only elected incumbent since Franklin Pierce in 1856 to lose his party’s presidential nomination.

Is Biden bouncing back?

So is it time to reexamine the counterargument that has been coming from Biden’s campaign — namely, that voters will “come around” as inflation cools and the reality of another Trump term snaps into focus?

If so, the new Yahoo News/YouGov poll offers some early signs of hope for the president.

For starters, Democrats seem to be falling in line. A full 74% of potential primary voters now say they support Biden as their 2024 nominee against Williamson (4%) and Phillips (3%) — up from 68% who said in December that they would vote for Biden in their state’s primary or caucus.

Likewise, Democratic support for Biden (62%) versus a hypothetical “someone else” (28%) is 11 points higher than it was just last month — and less than half (42%) of potential Democratic primary voters say they want another Democrat to challenge the president, down from 50% in December and 54% in November. Democrats are also increasingly likely to describe Biden as “fit to serve another term as president”: 64% now vs. 54% in November.

At the same time, Democrats are seven points more likely to say they approve of how Biden is handling the presidency (81%) than they were last month (74%). As a result, Biden’s overall approval rating among all Americans (40%) has jumped by three points over the same period — and while still low, it’s higher than it has been since August of last year.

The issue on which Biden has gained the most ground since December? The economy, where he’s gone from 36% to 39% approval among all Americans — and from 69% to 79% among Democrats.

This modest shift likely reflects real-world economic trends, including falling inflation, low unemployment and higher-than-expected growth. A third of all U.S. adults (33%) now describe the current state of the American economy as excellent or good, up six points from 27% in December and 10 points from 23% in September.

By the same token, just 32% say the economy is in recession, down from 36% in December and the lowest number on a Yahoo News/YouGov survey since the question was introduced in August 2022.

Back then, a majority of Americans (53%) said the economy was experiencing a recession.

The battle isn’t over yet

To be sure, both economic sentiment and Biden’s approval ratings remain lower than the White House would like. The president is tied with his predecessor, and neither independents nor Republicans are inclined to look favorably upon the economy — or Biden’s stewardship of it.

But once-reluctant Democrats are increasingly doing just that — and they, in turn, may be starting to boost Biden’s overall numbers.

Meanwhile, worries that younger voters and voters of color would abandon Biden over his support for Israel seem not to have materialized; Biden’s current approval ratings among Black Americans (63%) and Americans aged 18-29 (49%) are actually higher today than they were in September 2023 (53% and 42%, respectively), prior to the war in Gaza.

None of this means Biden is favored to win reelection in November. But the South Carolina results show his party is finally getting behind him — and that’s the first step.