South Carolina Debate Analysis (D)

Last night the top three Democrats squared off in what was the most cantankerous, liveliest, and probably nastiest debate that has taken place so far this campaign season. The rhetoric often became heated and the accusations were flying fast and furiously. Praising the legacy of Martin Luther King was often followed by accusations of distoring one's records, working with "slumlords," hypocrisy, and not taking stands on previous tough votes. In other words, it was good television for political junkies and pundits who had been waiting for the gloves to come off for ages.

Here's how I think the candidates fared:

Hillary Clinton

Clinton was highly aggressive at the debate, as she hit Obama hard over Iraq, healthcare, his voting record in the Illinois legislature, and even his dealings with the shady Tony Rezko. Some of these attacks did not go over well, as she actually received a few boos from the audience. Her main point was that one's record and what one says do matter, and she wanted to use Obama's "present" votes (read this post I wrote back in November) and recent remarks (e.g., talking about Reagan's transformational politics) to illustrate these points. Of course, this would open her up to criticism about her war vote regarding Iraq and how so many of her records from Bill Clinton's presidency have yet to be released, so this is a risky strategy for her to pursue. Curiously, she also said "this election is about the future." But does Clinton really represent "the future?"

There has been a titanic shift among Black voters from Clinton to Obama after Obama's Iowa victory and the race-baiting from the last two weeks. Coupling this with Clinton's attacks on Obama last night suggests that she has made the tactical decision to cede South Carolina to Obama and speak moreso to Democrats in Florida and the Super Tuesday states. This is akin to Mitt Romney's foregoing South Carolina for the sake of Michigan and Nevada. Black voters in South Carolina (and perhaps beyond) seem to have made the decision that Obama is "their guy" and will not take kindly to Clinton hammering him like that. Obama will probably win South Carolina, but his margins among Black voters will likely be quite lopsided.

If this is Clinton's strategy, it does have some merit in that Blacks will not make up as large a portion of the electorate in many Super Tuesday states as they do in South Carolina, thus giving Blacks for Obama the same importance as evangelicals for Huckabee. So while Clinton could cede the Black vote to Obama on Super Tuesday, if she is able to hold down his margins among White voters enough, she could plausibly win the nomination. The problem with this, however, is that she will be under a lot of pressure to smooth over her relationships with Blacks, especially if she doesn't choose Obama or another Black as her running mate. The problem for Obama, of course, is that the more Blacks rush to his campaign and the more they express outrage over the attacks against him (from Whites), the more he risks becoming "the black candidate" instead of "the unity candidate who happens to be Black." As I mentioned in a previous post, Clinton can beat the former, but she can't beat the latter.

Barack Obama

Standing at the center lectern, Barack Obama was buffeted from all sides by Clinton and Edwards. He had several particularly sharp exchanges with Clinton, which likely indicates that the "truce" they had declared just a few days ago is either over or never really existed to begin with. To Obama's credit, he was able to parry most of the attacks that came his way and even cleverly pivoted from talking about a vulnerability to talking about a strength. For example, when Clinton hit him hard on his dealings with Tony Rezko, Obama glossed over the controversy and pivoted to discussing the importance of being able to trust what our leaders say. While he may not have completely acquited himself regarding Rezko, he did at least mollify voters by reminding them of his candor, which he commonly demonstrated in his book regarding his past drug use and other indiscretions. But while he was able to successfully turn this into an issue of honesty, it also provided his weakest moment of the debate because he was forced to concede that "none of our hands are completely clean." Should the media pick up on this remark, Obama had better be prepared to explain exactly what he meant because the Obama brand is built on "change," which is synonymous with good, open, clean government.

Obama had a few things he clearly wanted to say tonight, likely in an attempt to quell some of the persistent rumors about him and to get some of his frustrations out in the open. Note that he made it a point to remind everyone that he was "a proud Christian" and that he wasn't sure if he was running against just one Clinton or two. The former remark was to stem the rumors about him being a Muslim. The latter was to convey to voters that he was being unfairly double-teamed by the Clinton machine and that they represent the "old way" of doing politics. For voters who don't have access to the internet or who don't often watch the news, this debate provided Obama with a huge megaphone through which he could communicate with these voters who might be easily swayed by rumors or other propoganda.

The audience seemed to like Obama last night and commonly applauded or chucked at his remarks. Because of how aggressively Clinton and Edwards were attacking him, Obama could parlay that into a discussion about "coming together," which plays to his strengths. His remarks about who Martin Luther King would endorse were quite clever, as he reminded voters that King was about empowerment and grassroots activism. This response was out of the box and showed him to be "different" from traditional Black leaders who commonly talk about combatting racism, ending poverty, and the vestiges of slavery. Blacks and Whites alike probably found these remarks to be quite pleasing and uplifting.

John Edwards

John Edwards is the odd man out in this race. He complained to the moderators several times about there being three candidates on the stage instead of two and how the other candidates were getting more time to speak than he was. But this is Edwards' problem. After losing his must-win state of Iowa, placing a distant third in New Hampshire, garnering a dismal 4% in Nevada, and trailing badly in South Carolina polls, Edwards is on the cusp of irrelevancy.

People have talked about how Edwards could potentially be a kingmaker or even wrest the nomination away from Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama if they beat up on each other so badly that they render themselves unelectible. But the problem with this is that the voters already know who Edwards is and saw how little he added to John Kerry's 2004 ticket. His populist rhetoric has some resonance, but he seems to be losing traction everywhere.

Edwards tried to play the role of the grown-up on stage who wanted to keep the focus on the issues facing ordinary Americans:

"(paraphrased quote) Americans don't care about our bickering. All our squabbling is not going to give hardworking Americans healthcare."
For politicos who have been paying attention, this is exactly what Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, and Joe Biden were saying at previous debates, but none of them was rewarded for it. Because Edwards is now the weakest candidate remaining, will his remarks be ignored just as Richardson's were? After all, Richardson talked about stopping the petty bickering at the debate before the New Hampshire primary. He won lots of applause for those remarks, but they didn't translate into lots of votes.

Several pundits identified Edwards as the winner of the debate, but I'm not so sure. He was reminded of previous votes he had taken that contradict his campaign rhetoric now (e.g., votes regarding trade with China) and several of his attacks on Obama were successfully parried. While Edwards may have won in terms of trying to focus more on the issues, too many voters may have already written him off for his arguments to resonate.

In addition to this, he sometimes allied himself with Obama to attack Clinton as not being a true agent of change. The problem with this is that Obama is viewed as the main "change" candidate in the race. Edwards needs to find a new niche because the "change" mantle has already been taken. Sometimes Edwards joined with Clinton to attack Obama as well, but he doesn't have much to gain by pursuing that strategy either because the Edwards and Clinton camps simply don't like each other and are not likely to have their supporters defect to the other's campaign.

The Republicans

John McCain seems to be the candidate the Democrats are expecting to face in November. The fact that his name was brought up more than once should delight McCain's campaign and be good for his fundraising because he could tell his donors that "the Democrats are more worried about me than they are about fixing the economy" or something like that. That has the added bonus of allowing McCain to make an "us vs. them" argument in which "us" means Republicans--the very group he needs to win over the most because of his weaker appeal among those voters compared to independents.

George Bush's name also often came up, usually for the sake of criticism. The Democrats seem intent on running against Bush this fall even though his name won't be on the ballot. Look for McCain to be turned into a proxy for Bush despite his popularity among independents and his perception as a maverick. That might not be easy to do because Republican dissatisfaction with and distrust of McCain is well-documented and could be used as evidence to show that he is not as close to Bush as the Democrats may claim.

The fact that Mitt Romney's name was not mentioned at all despite having won more states than his rivals and leading the delegate race is probably a psychological blow for him. However, Romney could be what Obama was last year in that Republicans were expecting to face off against the inevitable Clinton. Should the Democrats view McCain as the inevitable Republican, a surprise Romney nomination could force the Democrats to search for a new political playbook.

This is not to say that the Democrats plan on ceding all of the Republican votes to the Republican candidates. Obama was the only Democrat that talked about getting a few disenchanted Republicans to join him, thus further buttressing the idea that he is a unity candidate. Clinton talked more about having faced the Republicans before and being able to beat them, thus reminding Democrats that she's "tough" and "tested." Edwards' populist rhetoric could potentially appeal to both Democrats and Republicans because poverty knows no politics, but his nomination looks far less likely now than it did a few months ago.

The media

With this debate taking place on Martin Luther King Day and being sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus in South Carolina, a lot of questions were related to the issues of race and poverty. Some of the questions, however, were a bit unnecessary, as they did not really reveal anything important about the candidates. For example, why was Obama asked if Bill Clinton really was "the first Black president?" Fortunately he had a witty response ("let's see how well he dances"), but couldn't the time spent on this question have been better spent asking about the candidates' views on withdrawing troops from Iraq?

The moderator (CNN's Wolf Blitzer) did not really have control over this debate, but the ground rules he mentioned at the beginning of the debate made this lack of control seem less obvious. Having had so many of these rules be ignored in previous debates, CNN did a good job of just letting the candidates have at each other, even though they had a tendency to stray off topic and go negative. (Again, to his credit, John Edwards tried to keep everyone focused on the issues instead of on each other.) The moderators simply asked the questions and tried to give the candidates a fair chance to offer rebuttals to their rivals' charges. So while they might not have had total control over the debate, at least they did not embarrass themselves by pretending they did.

All in all, judging from this debate I'd say that Clinton is thinking more about Super Tuesday than South Carolina, Obama is thinking about exposing Clinton as a negative campaigner, and Edwards is still thinking about finding a way to become the third person in a two-person race.

15 comment(s):

Schenck said...

Go Obama!

Good analysis, Palmer, I totally agree that Clinton is basically shafting South Carolina in lieu of Super Awesome Fantastic Tuesday. It will be interesting to see how Obama works his organization for the big day. I wish Kucinich was still in the debates; if Edwards is invited, so should he be. I wonder what the ratings were for last night's debate; I hope they were high, as I thought all of the candidates' true colors showed through: Clinton's twisting venom, Edwards' opportunism, Obama's honesty (I'm biased, but it was nice to see him stand up for himself against the machine), but I missed the line, "None of our hands are completely clean;" hope the MSM doesn't pick up on that.

WINNERS: Obama, McCain, Kucinich

LOSERS: the rest of the Republican candidates

Nikki said...

Anthony I missed the debate but caught clips of it on CNN and Youtube.....Hillary to me looked very bad. Obama has put up with her attacks like a gentleman and I am wondering how long that will go on.......Though I did think Obama looked a little ill-prepared to answer some questions. He seemed to be searching for words most of the time. And little Rodney King errrrrr John Edwards was annoying. But he annoys me no matter what. The only dem I don't find annoying is Obama. I wish he would have grasped a little Reagan love and showed it. I would like to see one candidate say that the opposite party is ALL wrong. To me that is a red flag. Which is why I don't listen to Limbaugh or Hannity. To think that your party has a monopoly on what is right is a closed minded view and kool-aid consumption. I am wary of those people and I close my mind to them. Hillary would like to think she is the great American savior but we all know she talks out both sides of her face. Barack is too nice to stoop. Great post.

Nikki said...

and to clarify that the other party is NOT all wrong. not IS all wrong....sorry.

Andy said...

Great analysis. You hit on it a little bit in the Clinton section, but I think last night probably helped Clinton in the long run. She pulled Obama down to her level, which isn't his comfort zone or where he probably wants to be. Overall, though, each candidate should be pleased. Obama did well defending most attacks, while Edwards looked above the fray and had very detailed policy points.

Anonymous said...

I love how Obama is a "gentleman" for putting up with Clinton's attacks but she's apparently a mean bitch for playing the same game. What overt sexism.

Nikki said...

Not sexism......its called REALITY....I am a woman and a republican and it is as plain as day who the attacker is....I fail to see how this is sexism. Criticism towards Hillary is sexist? Interesting where the feminist movement has gone. To the role of victim no doubt. You said it yourself Obama is putting up with her attacks, obviously its NOT the same game. get off your "I am woman" high horse. Hillary doesn't represent all women. Just the ones who throw around terms of intimidation like sexist.

Anonymous said...

I'm actually not a woman, but I recognize sexism when I see it. Sexism is when a woman is aggressive and is called out while a man is similarly aggressive and praised. I'm clearly not going to discuss feminism with a woman Republican of all people. Talk about self-depredation. Lest we forget that you MISSED the debate as well.

Anonymous said...

self-deprecation* even

Nikki said...

The fact that you are a man lends you no more credibility. And I am not sure what "of all people" means but I am sure it means something demeaning. Which I am sure is OK for a democrat man to be a sexist to a republican woman, because democrats aren't sexist they only define who is and is not. You are the aggressor so you are a sexist. What am I?

Anonymous said...

I mean that it is inappropriate for a Republican anything to even utter the word "feminism" without conjuring up decades of attempts to thwart gender equality and civil rights across the board... but that's another topic entirely.

I've come to the conclusion that it's probably not so much sexism as ignorance. Because you like Obama and the media has taught you to like Obama, Obama can do no wrong. Nevermind the fact that he speaks mostly in generalities and flowery rhetoric.

Nikki said...

This is where you are wrong. I don't like Obama's policies and I agree there are none and they are sticky sweet, however I do not see him playing as dirty as Hillary. That is my opinion. As far as you and your belief that I am a thwarter of civil rights and feminist ideals strictly on the basis of being conservative is ignorant and arrogant. I am sure the monopoly you claim on civil rights you actually believe so the discussion is of no value. And feminism you can have. I want no part of it.

Schenck said...

Hey Anonymous:

I support Obama. The difference between him and Hillary is that he tells the truth and she lies and deceives. It has nothing to do with sexism and everything to do with morality.

Anthony Palmer said...


I think you missed the point of Anonymous's first post. He was remarking on how similar behavior from two candidates is branded in two different ways. When Obama attacks Hillary, he's seen as a "gentleman." When Hillary attacks Obama, she's seen as a "bitch." I believe this is what he was talking about and has some merit, though I think other factors are involved.



Thanks for the comment. Apparently this debate was the highest rated one in cable history. I guess Jerry Springer type debates are better for ratings than Meet the Press type debates. I must admit that it was good television even though I was really unhappy with the lack of substance at times.



You are right about Edwards. Seems like he would be a compromise candidate if you synthesized Obama and Clinton. But he seems to be suffering from "also ran" status in that his time may have passed. People know who Edwards is already, and they aren't in his camp even though he's already been in the limelight.

Nikki said...

Hey Anthony.......I still disagree even though the point may have been to contrast the differences in perception. I still think Obama is taking the high road and Hillary is not. It doesn't always come down to definition PC politics, sometimes it just is how it is. Sometimes there is NO injustice. I completely disagree. But it sure does make for a lot of comments first thing in the morning!!! hahaha
N :)

Anthony Palmer said...


You are also right in that Obama is indeed trying hard to stay out of the Clintons' mud pit. But I think Obama is so afraid of being swiftboated that he has no choice but to respond to the Clintons' attacks. It's sad, but it's also politics. New Hampshire voters had the chance to bring the Clintons to their knees in their primary two weeks ago, but passed on the opportunity. I am not sure if Obama is tough enough to beat the Clintons, but in a way, this is good practice for him because if he becomes the nominee, what the Clintons are doing to him now won't even compare to what the GOP throws at him in October and November.

Oh, and younger (Democratic-leaning) voters who might not remember so much about the 90s are probably looking at this fighting and are moving to Obama in droves.