Dissecting South Carolina (D)

The results are still coming in, but it looks like Barack Obama will win the South Carolina Democratic primary with more than half of the vote and with more votes than Hillary Clinton and John Edwards combined. Given the margin of his victory and his sufficiently strong performance among White voters (exit poll results here), it appears that the emerging storyline will be that the voters rejected the Clintonian brand of race-baiting politics and really want to move on. The other likely storyline will concern where John Edwards goes from here. Here are some of my thoughts, listed in no particular order:

1. The only way John Edwards can win the nomination now is if Clinton or Obama self-destructs somewhere down the road and he becomes the alternative candidate. But barring a total meltdown or fatal gaffe on behalf of his rivals, the only path for John Edwards now leads to amassing delegates, not winning the nomination. He was already in trouble for not winning his must-win state of Iowa and registering an embarrassing 4% in Nevada. But finishing third in his home state of South Carolina, a state he won in 2004, is a particularly strong rejection of his candidacy and is not something he can easily spin. Having been born here and representing next-door North Carolina, South Carolinians should reasonably be expected to know Edwards better than voters elsewhere. That's what makes this showing by Edwards so disappointing for his campaign. There is one silver lining for Edwards, however. Given the unexpectedly large margin of Obama's victory, most of the media's focus will be on him, rather than Edwards and his weak performance.

2. Appeals for civility and maturity may for make for good soundbytes in debates, but people don't vote for mediators. They vote for leaders. Joe Biden tried to take the high road and was rewarded with fifth place in Iowa. Chris Dodd did the same and finished seventh. Bill Richardson thought that might win him plaudits in the debate before the New Hampshire primary, but the only thing he won was an all-expense paid trip out of the race. And in the case of John Edwards, his rhetoric about civility was well-received. However, voters rewarded Obama for running the more positive campaign instead.

3. Black and White voters rejected Black and White politics. This anger was directed both at the Clintons as well as the media. Blacks were quite angry about having the issue of race be reduced to a political wedge issue. And Whites were angry about the the notion that the Clintons thought they could be scared into voting for them by playing on old fears. This is something Blacks and Whites alike would expect from a Republican, not a Democrat. And that's why both Blacks and Whites were so shocked by the tone and the rhetoric of the Clinton campaign. The Clinton campaign's race-baiting may have succeeded in that it drove Obama's Black support up and his White support down, which would likely benefit Clinton on Super Tuesday. However, these offended and angry Black voters are at a greater risk of staying home on Election Day in November because they have long memories when it comes to this kind of rhetoric. (Don Imus is still a sore spot, for example.) Democrats need that 85-90% of the Black vote in November. If they don't get it, competitive blue states with large Black populations (especially Michigan and Pennsylvania) may turn red. And given the weakness of Clinton regarding her electibility in the general election, she can ill afford to hemorrhage any part of her base whatsoever.

4. The generation gap between Clinton, Obama, and their supporters is very, very real. Per the exit poll results, Obama beat Clinton among voters of all ages except those over 65. And he often beat Clinton among younger voters by better than 2 to 1. The prospect of seeing a woman president may matter more to these voters because they grew up at a time when women faced far more barriers in their professional lives. Older voters may be more reliable voters, but relying on seniors for electoral success is a dicey proposition. And younger voters, many of whom have been apathetic about politics before, look at Obama as someone who channels their dreams, their vision of what America should be, and their frustration with our current state of our political discourse. To younger voters, it's as if Obama is a movement, rather than just a candidate.

The next state up is Florida, but it's more of a beauty contest than anything else because it will not award any delegates. It appears that Clinton will campaign there regardless, however, presumably to change the story from South Carolina to the springboard to Super Tuesday. The Clinton campaign will eagerly write off South Carolina because they know that the state will never go Democratic in a general election. But this state and their approach to it may have caused irreparable damage to their campaign because it reminded voters more of what they hated about the 1990s than what they missed. Notice that I am referring to the Clintons in the plural form because it is obvious that Obama is running against both the New York senator and the former president.

This reality opens up a new avenue of attack for Obama because he could reasonably question who the real president would be in a Hillary Clinton White House. And citing the Clintons' rhetoric over the past two weeks would probably lead most voters to conclude that the real risk is not in electing an "unproven" Obama with a thin resume, but rather in reelecting the Clintons and allowing their brand of politics to make America lose faith in what she is.

Black voters in the Super Tuesday states will probably break for Obama the same way they did for him in South Carolina. Those voters will likely never go back to Clinton unless she's the nominee. And White voters who were leaning towards Clinton probably were put off by her campaign and may be more inclined to vote for Obama as well. John Edwards' supporters are going to have to be honest with themselves about their available choices. Being another "change" candidate, I would expect his supporters to flock to Obama in greater numbers. But if they remain loyal to Edwards, the question will then be a matter of who his presence is hurting more. But in general, it's really hard to see how the Clintons can build up their support faster than they appear to be losing it.

For now, Obama has seized the momentum and is now even money against Clinton on Super Tuesday. But will voters in the Super Tuesday states punish her as well? Or will they have short memories?

The race goes on.

8 comment(s):

Brett said...

I wonder if it is such a good idea for Obama himself to go after "The Clintons" (since it is, as you mentioned, fairly obvious that that's what they've become).

What I think he really needs is a good surrogate to hit for him, while he remains on the moral highground, only hitting for maximum damage.

In any case, the fact that the Hillary Clinton campaign has blurred into The Clinton Team Third Time Re-Election Group, it leaves a fresh avenue of attack. The Clintons did a lot of good things in the 1990s, but one bad thing they did was the mismanagement that led to an epic defeat in the 1994 Congressional Elections - and which left the Democrats in the wilderness of Republican Rule for 12 years.

Silence Dogood said...

I am very curious why an alternative story to the break down of the race along racial lines might not be the fact that Hillary lost OVERWHELMINGLY among women (supposedly part of her base?) We saw stories and controversies about stories all week that labled how women of color were having this tough identity choice - if that was how they decided to so choose - as to whether or not to vote for Hillary or Obama. Yet the woman vote which broke so big for Hillary to win N.H. was quite distant here in S.C. She only on 30%!?! of women in S.C. If she could have even won half of the females who voted in S.C. primary (they made up 61% of the vote) and no one else she would have beaten the actual percentage she did garner. I wonder if we will see this story. The press, so eager to report on the female voters after N.H. when they broke big for Hillary, but will they do the same in S.C. when they didn't?

Anthony Palmer said...


I noticed that too about the women vote regarding Hillary. And Black women in particular voted just like Black men regarding her. I'm a bit conflicted about whether the media should focus on it though because I've had enough of this identity politics garbage. It wasn't good when it was about Blacks and Whites with Obama, and it isn't good women men and women regarding Hillary. On the other hand, you reap what you sow, so Hillary in a way deserves such negative coverage.



You have a very good point in that Obama might be better off enlisting a surrogate. However, if he did that, wouldn't he be engaging in "politics as usual?" I think Obama is uniquely positioned to take on both Clintons by himself. And when they criticize him for going negative, he can say he's standing up for himself and he is taking full responsibility for his actions by confronting them directly, rather than hiding behind a loose cannon surrogate. Good point though.

Thank you both for your comments.

The Blue South said...

Although I generally agree with your comment that SC will almost certainly go to the Republican candidate in the general election, I found it interesting that Obama's vote tally in the Democratic primary was less than 1,000 votes short of the total number of voters in the Republican primary.

The Blue South said...

Disregard that last comment, I made a substantial error in my calculations...results still bode well for SC dems, just not quite as well as I thought.

Silence Dogood said...

Anthony, knowing your background as a student of the media, I noticed and interesting trend that I would be curious about your thoughts (the phenomenon itself or whether or not I am just seeing things). It appears the story about Bill Clinton's negative comments startin to backlash on against him on the campaign trail - note he even gave Hillary's concession speech - odd, very odd.

None the less, my question. I heard before that polling tests showed that "Hillary Clinton" did not poll as well as "Hillary Rodham Clinton" esp. when associated further with Bill. Well, I have noticed a very large number of media outlets - formerly referrin to her as Hillary Clinton, now refering to her as Hillary Rhodam Clinton. So is this really happening, and if so I am always amazed at the Clinton's ability to stear the news in so many ways. Even when she lost Iowa she still managed to garner more headlines than Obama, consider and positive ones at that. After Huckabee won Iowa, Romney's name was only uttered for the sake of negative comments about getting beaten.

Anthony Palmer said...


You are right that there is a definite enthusiasm gap between the parties this year as turnout for the primaries/caucuses so far indicates. I think South Carolina simply has too many partisan Republicans to make this state a possible win for the Democrats. Keep in mind, the GOP establishment here really dislikes moderates and RINOs. There are letters condemning Senator Lindsay Graham in the newspaper on a daily basis. Obama doesn't evoke nearly as much hatred as Clinton does, but I still don't think there are enough Democrats, independents, and moderates in this state to push him over the top. I do, however, think Obama could do quite well in light red states like Missouri, Virginia, and Ohio.



I have seen the same polls that show how HRC is viewed more favorably than just HC. I haven't paid much attention to the way her name is used in the media, however. But if your observations are indeed true, it would suggest that the Clintons' influence over the media is quite strong, perhaps unfairly so. But we must understand that a lot of journalists and media executives are close to the Clintons and might be willing to do them some favors that they'd be less likely to do for other candidates. How many times have the media played that YouTube clip of Romney saying "who let the dogs out?" for example? A lot of people think the media are biased in favor of Clinton and McCain, biased against Romney and Giuliani, and still unsure about Obama. But given how they've been reporting on his middle name and those other rumors and all those "Obama/Osama" slip-ups, maybe they're against him too. I don't know.

Silence Dogood said...

Anthony, thanks for you thoughts on that. Whether or not the favoratism is there with Clinton seems apparent to me (I could be wrong on that). I don't for instance think that obversely there is a biased against Edwards or Obama, however I guess my real issue is whether or not it is control of the media - the Clinton's are very savvy how they approach anything - manipulation of the media or just a favoratism towards them by the media that is for other reasons (let's face it they sell papers/news/TV/magazines et cetera). Keep up the thoughtful analysis.

Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.