In our story on Thursday about polls in New Hampshire showing Biden losing support, we mentioned the total lack of polls coming out of South Carolina since early December. No sooner did that story publish than Fox News releases a poll of Democratic primary voters in South Carolina showing some stunning results. If this latest poll, the only recent major poll from South Carolina in a month, is to be believed, then something has dramatically shifted in the state causing serious trouble for Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg.

On the flip side, Joe Biden is leading handily, and, for some reason, billionaire Tom Steyer has now rocketed into the second place position.

Fox News Poll of South Carolina Democratic Primary Voters – Jan 5-8

  • Joe Biden – 36%
  • Tom Steyer – 15%
  • Bernie Sanders – 14%
  • Elizabeth Warren – 10%
  • Pete Buttigieg – 4%
  • Michael Bloomberg – 2%
  • Andrew Yang – 2%
  • Cory Booker – 2%

The poll, conducted January 5-8, 2020 with 808 South Carolina Democratic primary voters, offers some eyepopping results which even the New York Times struggles to adequately explain:

In what might be the most surprising results of the cycle, Fox News released polls in South Carolina and Nevada showing Tom Steyer in a strong position: second place with 15 percent of the vote in the South Carolina primary, and tied for third with 12 percent of the vote in Nevada.

It’s enough to qualify him for next week’s Democratic debate, and it at least raises the question of whether he’s poised to play a more meaningful role in the race.

The results are unexpected enough that you could be forgiven for questioning the validity of the polling. That would be a mistake.

Fox News polls are of high quality, and the sample is large enough that the result can’t be dismissed as noise. The findings are not wholly without corroboration. Morning Consult’s early state tracking shows Mr. Steyer at 10 percent combined across the four early states.

Earlier polls of South Carolina showed signs of Mr. Steyer’s emerging strength, including showings of 7 percent and 8 percent in November polls by YouGov and the University of North Florida.

There’s a lot to unpack there. First, it’s worth noting that this poll bumped Steyer into qualifying for the Democratic debate coming up next Tuesday. He was sitting on the cusp of needing some good numbers in early states, and the Fox News poll delivered. Secondly, though some Democrats are skeptical of polls released by the right-leaning cable network, the Times vouches for the integrity of the methodology employed by the Fox News polling division which is why the Democratic National Committee included Fox News polling in their list of approved polls for debate participation.

The bottom line to explain Steyer’s Palmetto State surge? Money.

Steyer has spent millions upon millions of dollars blanketing the early primary and caucus states with his name and message on every television screen. Steyer has spent more on advertising than every other candidate combined, perhaps just short of his fellow billionaire in the race, Michael Bloomberg.

Beyond Steyer’s surge, what about Joe Biden? We questioned yesterday whether new polls from South Carolina would be good or bad for him, depending on whether his support there was eroding like it was in Iowa and New Hampshire. Well, Biden got the numbers he needed as proof that his South Carolina firewall still holds, thanks to African American voters in the state:

When South Carolina Democrats vote February 29, it will be the first primary with a significant African American population — and they are key to Biden’s advantage. He receives 43 percent among black voters, while Steyer takes 16 percent, Sanders 12 percent, Warren 6 percent, and Booker and Buttigieg get 2 percent apiece.

Steyer is also benefitting from an uptick in African American support as well:

Steyer’s strong showing comes primarily from black voters and women, as he comes in second to Biden among both of those groups. Plus, he’s second only to Sanders among voters under 35.

We headlined South Carolina, but Fox also polled Democratic voters in Nevada. Their findings? Similar, but different in ways, with good news for Biden out west:

Poll of Nevada Democratic Caucus Voters – Jan 5-8

  • Joe Biden – 23%
  • Bernie Sanders – 17%
  • Elizabeth Warren – 12%
  • Tom Steyer – 12%
  • Pete Buttigieg – 6%
  • Andrew Yang – 4%
  • Cory Booker – 3%
  • Amy Klobuchar – 2%

Source: Fox News poll conducted January 5-8, 2020 with 1,505 Nevada voters who spoke with live interviewers on both landlines and cellphones. Interviews were offered in English and Spanish. Respondents were randomly selected from a statewide voter file, and 635 were screened to identify potential participants in the Democratic caucus.

Steyer’s position, while improved, is still fairly weak. Whether he can hold on in South Carolina and actually beat Sanders or Warren behind Biden remains to be seen. The fact that we’re even discussing his polling surge is a testament to his strategy of carpet-bombing early states with blanket advertising. Money really can buy support, just look at the results.

Biden needed these numbers in both states, but South Carolina in particular. If he remains the runaway front runner in the state, it serves his argument in Iowa and New Hampshire. If he loses the first two states, but then comes back roaring in South Carolina and/or Nevada, it’ll speak to his position as a stronger national candidate in Super Tuesday states.

Either way, Biden needed some big numbers and this poll didn’t disappoint. He’s still the one to beat in South Carolina, and the rest of the field will need to evaluate their ground game there. The strategy of candidates like Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg has been to go all-in on Iowa and New Hampshire without wasting time and resources in South Carolina. That strategy has left the state open for Biden, with natural built-in support, and apparently, Tom Steyer, who is owning the airwaves.

We will see Steyer in the Jan. 14 debate thanks to this poll.