National group polls in South Carolina to prove a Democrat can beat Lindsey Graham

A national organization dedicated to electing black candidates had already endorsed Democrat Jaime Harrison in South Carolina.

Now, Collective PAC is paying for polling inside the state to test Harrison’s viability and justify future investments in the campaign to take out Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in 2020.

Collective PAC has raised and spent millions on races across the country since its launch in 2016. Its recent investment in South Carolina is yet another example of how national political groups — on both sides of the aisle — are paying attention to and making investments in S.C. races thought to be safe for Republicans.

According to a poll Collective PAC commissioned from Change Research and obtained first by The State, Harrison trails Graham by just 7 percentage points — a surprisingly slim margin given the demographics of a state that elected President Donald Trump by nearly 14 percentage points in 2016.

In an online poll, Change Research asked 809 likely South Carolina voters between September 17-21 how they would vote in a Graham-Harrison match-up in November 2020.

Asked the first time about the match up, likely general election voters said they favored Graham 50-43.

The poll goes on to paint an even rosier picture for Harrison’s camp.

Upon reading a biography and mission statement for each candidate — “Lindsey is running to support President Trump, secure our border, and protect our economy from Democrats who want to take us back to the days of Barack Obama” while “Jaime will work with anyone ... because he knows that when your community needs help, character counts and party labels don’t matter” — those same voters picked Graham over Harrison at just a 2 percentage point spread, 49-47.

“In the midst of a changing South, this poll clearly shows that South Carolinians’ favorability towards Lindsey Graham has also changed,” said Quentin James, Collective PAC’s co-founder and CEO. “We’re thrilled to support Jaime’s strong effort to be South Carolina’s next U.S. senator.”

The poll’s findings could build more momentum for Harrison’s campaign at a time when Graham has perhaps never been more polarizing, thanks to his support of a controversial president now battling impeachment.

The former leader of the state Democratic Party and current associate chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Harrison is being perceived as the most viable Democrat in years to run for a U.S. Senate seat in South Carolina.

Presidential candidates are flocking to campaign alongside him, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has endorsed him in a contested primary. He’s also boasted record fundraising numbers.

There are, however, reasons to view the poll with caution.

For one thing, it’s still early in the campaign. And though Harrison is widely favored to be the nominee to challenge Graham next year, he still needs to formally win his Democratic primary election first.

For another, Change Research conducts all its polling entirely online through a system that targets likely voters through “targeted online solicitations placed as advertisements on websites and social media platforms.”

There is considerable debate in the polling community as to whether Internet polls produce the most accurate results.

Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball — a prominent national political forecasting newsletter run out of the University of Virginia — noted most experts still regard landline and cell phone surveys as the “gold standard” of polling.

In the Change Research poll, potential participants were identified based on “past vote history from the voter file” and “self-reported certainty to vote in the upcoming election.” The poll drew responses from 218 black voters and 526 white voters, along with 274 Democrats, 328 Republicans and 206 Independents. It used a 3.4% margin of error.

Still, College of Charleston political science professor Gibbs Knotts argued that polling through this form of online solicitation does not utilize “a truly random sample of voters” one might get from calling phone numbers off a list of randomly-selected likely voters.

A path for Harrison if Trump tanks

A more likely spread between Graham (whose popularity has soared among Republicans), and Harrison (a Democrat who has never run for a statewide office), is in the “in the double digits,” said Knotts, of the College of Charleston.

Still, Harrison has a pathway forward if Trump’s approval ratings tank and Graham is unlikely to disentangle himself from the president, Knotts added.

In earlier polls, the odds favored Graham, whose popularity with the GOP has so far shielded him from any serious primary challenger.

Back in March, Conservatives for Clean Energy South Carolina released a telephone poll conducted by WPA Intelligence that found Graham beating Harrison 55-32. In June, Change Research conducted an online poll in conjunction with the Charleston Post and Courier and found Graham leading Harrison 52-35.

Knotts explained there were a few ways to explain the wild differences between the two earlier polls and the new Collective PAC-commissioned survey.

It could be, he said, that Change Research’s methodology is “questionable,” a theory endorsed by S.C. Republican party Chairman Drew McKissick.

“This is a bogus poll paid for by a liberal special interest group to raise money,” he said in a statement. “No former lobbyist who supports impeaching President Trump, passing the Green New Deal, and socializing our healthcare system is going to get anywhere near beating Senator Graham in South Carolina.”

At one point, Harrison was a lobbyist with the now-defunct Podesta Group.

But Gibbs said it also could be that public opinion about Graham is truly shifting.

The polling overlapped with revelations that Trump might have sought to use his office to urge the Ukrainian president to investigate Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden, which has now become the basis for the U.S. House Democratic impeachment inquiry.

In a poll question asking respondents to rate their opinions just of Graham, 35% viewed him favorably as opposed to 53% who viewed him unfavorably.

“This is not the same Lindsey Graham that many people voted for in previous elections,” said Harrison in a statement Monday.

Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University who manages the institute’s political public opinion survey of South Carolinians, noted that while “Graham’s support has remained strong over the past year and a half,” this new poll “definitely shows more enthusiasm for a Democratic candidate for Senate than at any other time.

“Whether this poll is an outlier,” Huffmon added, “remains to be seen.”

Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.