When Bill Clinton pointed out yesterday, while talking about Barack Obama’s South Carolina victory, that Jesse Jackson won the state in 1984 and 1988, the former President got plenty of attention.
Clinton seemed to be encouraging the perception that Obama won because of support from black voters, and that his victory was more about racial allegiances than substance.
He was also misrepresenting history.
It’s true that Jackson won South Carolina in ’84 and ’88. But Clinton failed to mention several key points. For one, the state held caucuses back in those days, not primaries, and they attracted only a fraction of the participation that yesterday’s primary did. Also, Jackson is a native of Greenville, South Carolina, which gave him an extra advantage.
Finally, and most importantly, no one campaigned against Jackson either time, and the contests had nowhere near the same significance to the race.
In ’84, Jackson, Walter Mondale and Gary Hart were the only three viable candidates for the Democratic nomination by the time South Carolina rolled around, although Jackson was not considered a serious threat. The South Carolina caucuses were not a standalone event, as yesterday’s primary was. They fell on the same Saturday as caucuses in Michigan, Arkansas and Mississippi, as well as a primary in Puerto Rico.
Neither Hart nor Mondale mounted a serious effort in South Carolina, and the press practically ignored the state. Both candidates were looking ahead to the imminent Tuesday primary in Illinois, the first major test after Super Tuesday (which had been held the Tuesday before South Carolina and which Mondale had used to rescue his campaign with surprise wins in Georgia and Alabama).
Given that Jackson was a native son of the state, that there was a large black vote he would likely attract, the small number of delegates at stake, and the presence of so many other states on the calendar, it made sense for Mondale and Hart to cede the state to Jackson, who "won" the caucuses (he actually finished second, well behind "uncommitted") with 25 percent.
The story wasn’t much different in 1988. That year, the caucuses again fell between Super Tuesday and Illinois, and again it made sense for all of the major contenders to leave it to Jackson.
Super Tuesday ’88 was essentially a three-way tie between Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and Jackson. When it was over, Dukakis and Gore both turned their attention to Illinois and Michigan (which caucused the Saturday after Illinois). Gore, who had skipped Iowa and New Hampshire, was desperate to parlay his new momentum into a non-Southern state while Dukakis believed Illinois and Michigan wins could seal the nomination for him. So they left South Carolina to Jackson, who improved on his ’84 performance by claiming 41 percent of votes. As in ’84, the media largely ignored the contest.
Yesterday, more than 500,000 people voted in the South Carolina Democratic primary, a stark contrast to those caucuses 20 years ago. Preparations by the candidates began more than a year ago. The national media camped out in the state for the week. And the candidates (with the exception of Hillary’s two-day hiatus) moved in for the week. Jesse Jackson didn’t have to do too much work for his South Carolina wins. Barack Obama had to compete with the celebrity of both Clintons and John Edwards’ claim to his home state.