Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s comments about working with segregationist senators don’t appear to have dented him, according to new polling showing he remains the overwhelming front-runner ahead of this week’s first Democratic presidential primary debates.
Mr. Biden was the choice of 38% of Democratic primary voters — the same level of support as last week and 19 points ahead of Sen. Bernard Sanders, his nearest competitor, according to a Morning Consult poll finalized Monday.
A separate survey Morning Consult conducted in coordination with Politico found Democrats appeared to like Mr. Biden’s joking about not being called “boy” and his ability to work with Democrats who were avowed segregationists.
Some 31% of Democrats said the incident made them more likely to support Mr. Biden, while just 17% said they were less inclined to back him. Another 40% said it wouldn’t make a difference.
Among blacks, 30% said it made them more likely to support Mr. Biden, 20% said less likely, and 27% said it made no difference.
“It seems [as] if every time people try to give him the knockout punch, he becomes stronger,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist in South Carolina.
Some of Mr. Biden’s opponents have said he went out of bounds when he pointed last week to his past work with segregationist senators, the late Herman Talmadge and Jim Eastland, as an example of civility in politics and working with people with whom you might disagree.
Mimicking a southern drawl, he also said Eastland “never called me boy, he always called me son.” He later acknowledged the freighted connotations of the word “boy” for black men, but said his comments were taken out of context.
Sen. Cory Booker, a fellow 2020 presidential hopeful, said Mr. Biden should apologize. Mr. Biden said he’s the one who deserved an apology from those criticizing him.
The Morning Consult/Politico survey found, if anything, the dust-up hurt Mr. Booker.
While 22% of self-identified Democrats said it made them more likely to back the New Jersey senator, 26% said they were less inclined.
Overall, Mr. Booker trails Mr. Biden in the polls, with the rest of the field.
Mr. Seawright said Mr. Biden could have used different examples of working across the aisle to make his point, but that the dust-up is a prime example of the disconnect between what drives the conversation in Washington versus what voters around the country think.
“When you go to places like South Carolina … you know that blacks and whites have to work together — Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor,” he said. “And when you’re like me — you’re young, you’re black, and you’re a Democrat — you definitely have to work with Republicans and people who may be racists, who may be segregationists, if you want to get things done.”
Mr. Booker will be on stage Wednesday for the first night of Democrats’ two days of debates. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is the highest-profile Democrat the first night.
Mr. Biden will be on stage Thursday, along with Mr. Sanders, Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
The Morning Consult survey, after Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders, puts Ms. Warren third with 13%, Mr. Buttigieg next with 7% and Ms. Harris fifth with 6%. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Mr. Booker are next in the pecking order.
Mr. Biden also holds a lead in Florida with 47% support among registered Democrats, according to a St. Pete Polls survey taken over the weekend. Ms. Warren was a distant second, at 12%.
“Could he blow this? Absolutely. But for now, it’s his nomination to lose,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell.
Mr. Biden’s base of support is coming from minority voters, particularly blacks, and older voters — demographics that hold outsize influence in Democratic primary contests — who haven’t found reason to abandon him en masse, he said.
“If you want to boil it down to two slogans, it’s very simple: it’s ‘my buddy Barack,’ and ‘a return to normalcy’ for seniors,” Mr. O’Connell said. “[Obama’s] numbers among Democrats are even better than Trump’s dogged support among Republicans … it’s absolutely mind-numbing.”