Facing stiff challenges in New Hampshire and Iowa, and a falling poll average in South Carolina, former Vice President Joe Biden could be on track to more than double his poll numbers in the Midwest this fall as a result of what his campaign calls a “loyalty pledge” signed by a series of Republicans who defected from Donald Trump’s White House.
The gesture, which a few former GOP officials say played a pivotal role in their electoral decisions, might have helped Mr. Biden take a lead or at least a statistical tie in Michigan and Wisconsin, according to polls of those states as they began to test the vice president.
Mr. Biden has been trailing Senator Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) by double digits in polls there. And he’s getting more-skeletal support in Wisconsin from Democratic voters when they are asked whether they would vote for Mr. Biden, compared with Mr. Brown or another Democrat, if he qualified to run.
Those two states — along with Pennsylvania, Illinois and Ohio — are what have long been the GOP strongholds in the Midwest. And the growing confidence that Mr. Biden is finding among Republicans also is prompting other potential Democratic candidates to consider whether to join the crowded race in those states.
“We are doing extremely well in Wisconsin and Michigan,” Mr. Biden told reporters in Columbia, S.C., this week. “You are seeing movement in Wisconsin. I don’t want to talk a lot about it, because I don’t want to draw attention to it, but I do think you’re seeing movement.”
The former vice president spoke at length about his recent early-state campaigns to win over white, blue-collar voters, and how he plans to do a better job of connecting with that demographic while campaigning in early primary states.
“I haven’t engaged enough in that area,” Mr. Biden said. “That’s an issue. I think I have gotten weaker on that side of the thing.”
Some of the Republicans who signed Mr. Biden’s loyalty pledge also say they are receiving top-tier advocacy from him and believe it helped sway their support.
“I love him. I absolutely love him,” said Ned Steele, a well-known Republican strategist who fled Mr. Trump’s White House and now is helping build Mr. Biden’s campaign in Michigan. “I am absolutely certain [Biden] has not only supported me and pushed me on this but has given me my personal commitment on this.”
Mr. Steele and other Republicans helped Mr. Biden set up a focus group in Michigan where they fielded questions from women of all ages. With Mr. Biden’s knowledge of policy, they said, and his years of experience in politics, the appearance was key in showing that Mr. Biden was qualified to be president.
“When you put [Mr. Biden] in that room, he was smart. He was relaxed. He was fun,” Mr. Steele said. “He’s more experienced, but he’s also been vetted. So that put him a step ahead of a lot of the candidates.”
Mark Schauer, a Democratic candidate for governor in Michigan who supports Mr. Biden, said the vice president inspired voters when they learned he is a man who has lost children.
“He’s going to be an incredible advocate for Michigan,” Mr. Schauer said. “And we should be in the race [for the 2020 Democratic nomination] with our eyes wide open about what the Republicans could do to us and our neighbors in Michigan.”
It’s hard to gauge how much of an effect the loyalty pledge has had in boosting Mr. Biden in the West. Mr. Biden’s march toward the top of the Democratic field in Iowa and New Hampshire has been buoyed by the belief among his backers that a number of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire rejected Mr. Trump, regardless of his record on specific issues, and that those voters are unlikely to turn their backs on Mr. Biden.
Republicans who have defected from Mr. Trump in the Midwest, however, said they were simply writing their names on a piece of paper.
“In the end, it’s just about who is doing the best job to engage the base in an election,” said Anastasia Latina, a Republican who served as the Washington lobbyist for a group that had donated money to a group that hosted a Cruz-Trump campaign event. “It’s not going to affect the votes of those voters.”