The Clinton campaign spent the last week frantically inveigling the media to attach an asterisk to the South Carolina results.
And it just blew up in their faces.
Right up until the very end, just hours before the polls closed, Bill Clinton—the same Bill Clinton who had previously summoned all the righteous indignation he could to proclaim his campaign’s innocence in encouraging a racial divide—sought to chalk up his wife’s looming defeat to identity politics.
“Jesse Jackson won South Carolina twice, in ’84 and ’88,” the former President reminded reporters just before the polls closed—even though no one had asked him about race.
But Jesse Jackson—whose victories came when South Carolina held caucuses, not primaries—never won like this.
The South Carolina electorate was split almost exactly in half between whites and blacks, and as expected, Obama took the lion’s share of the black vote—81 percent, according to exit polls (to Hillary’s 17 percent).
But Obama also fared better—much better—than anticipated among white voters. John Edwards, native of rural Seneca, snagged 39 percent of the white vote, just ahead of Hillary’s 36 percent. The other quarter, though, went to Obama, a showing that turned the primary into an all-out rout for the Illinois Senator. And, contrary to some expectations, black women were as loyal to Obama as black men.
For the first time in four Democratic nominating contests, one candidate has now scored a double-digit (and then some) victory: Obama won Iowa by eight points over John Edwards, while Hillary claimed New Hampshire by three and Nevada by six. Obama’s South Carolina victory is in a whole different league.
Bracing for defeat, the Clintons focused on downplaying expectations all week, sending Hillary out of the state for two critical days and placing her in Tennessee as the returns came in. And Bill Clinton, days before his Jesse Jackson comment, predicted that black voters would flock to Obama—a formula that would all but guarantee an Obama win.
Clearly, the Clintons wanted the bar set so low that the media would either write off an Obama victory as a case of blacks voting for their own or play up a “stronger than expected” showing by Hillary—say, losing by only six points. And an outright Hillary victory? Well, that would be cause for handing her the nomination on the spot.
But for all their contingency planning, the Clintons could not have anticipated this kind of defeat. There is no moral victory in losing by this margin. And there is no asterisk, either, because Obama just showed that he can win over substantial white support even while running up huge margins among black voters. The Clintons wanted Obama to be tagged as “the black candidate”—hence Bill’s decision to bring up Jesse Jackson—but they have failed. His ability to pull together a multiethnic coalition has survived South Carolina.
The implications for the next wave of primaries are considerable.
Nearly two dozen states will vote on February 5 and for the first time, retail campaigning will not be a heavy factor in any of them. In a quasi- national primary like this, momentum is a key factor, something that Hillary—by virtue of her surprise New Hampshire win and her convincing Nevada showing—had in abundance heading into today. A solid performance in South Carolina, even in defeat, would have probably been enough to preserve the momentum and inevitability that had given her large leads in the biggest states voting on February 5, like California and New Jersey.
After missing opportunities in New Hampshire and Nevada, South Carolina became Obama’s last hope for building the kind of momentum that could threaten Hillary on Super Tuesday: Win by a larger than expected margin and reap the benefits of press coverage about his rejuvenated campaign. And now he has won just the thumping victory he needed.
More than that, South Carolina’s exit polls portend some serious potential trouble for the Clintons on Feb. 5. If he can receive similar black support, Obama may be positioned for resounding wins in the southern states that vote that day, like Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee.
But even in states without substantial black populations, Obama can compete. Among white voters in South Carolina, Hillary only defeated him by a 3:2 margin—much less than the Clinton campaign had been anticipating. It’s true that native son John Edwards may have skewed these numbers, but perhaps not substantially: Edwards voters looking for change or a personal connection with a candidate probably favor Obama as their second choice candidate.
South Carolina’s Democratic electorate is 50 percent black. But if the state’s exit poll model holds on February 5 (with Obama taking 80 percent of the black vote and losing whites 3:2 to Hillary) he would still be positioned to win a state where only 20 percent of the electorate is black. And if he can improve his showing among whites even slightly, it would take an even smaller chunk of black voters to put him over the top. Of course, some February 5 states have substantial Hispanic populations, a group with which Obama struggled in Nevada, but he has established in South Carolina that he does not need to rely on black voters to win.
It’s been clear for a while that the Democratic race will not end on February 5. But before tonight, it looked like Hillary was on pace to have a much better Super Tuesday than Obama. Not anymore.