What South Carolina Means: Hillary Clinton

(Note: This is the second in a three-part series assessing South Carolina as it pertains to the three leading Democratic candidates. Yesterday's post addressed John Edwards. Tomorrow's post will address Barack Obama. Today's post looks at Hillary Clinton.)


Hillary Clinton enters the South Carolina Democratic primary in an unfamiliar position: that of the underdog. After leading most polls last year and enjoying the aura of inevitability for the better part of the year, Barack Obama’s victory in the Iowa caucuses and her come from behind victory in New Hampshire have significantly weakened her stranglehold on the party’s presidential nomination. But after notching her second straight primary victory in Nevada, Clinton seems to have regained her footing and is one win away from possibly irreparably deflating the candidacy of her main rival.

However, a South Carolina victory appears more elusive than any other victory thus far. After leading South Carolina for much of the past year, there has been a tremendous shift among Black voters in the state, where they comprise about half of the electorate in the primary. There are two immediately obvious reasons why Blacks have defected from her campaign in droves:

1. Barack Obama’s Iowa victory and near-victory in New Hampshire have confirmed to Black voters that Obama is indeed electible. Many Blacks wanted to support Obama, but were afraid to do so because they worried that Whites would never vote for him because “they weren’t ready” for a Black president. However, putting together two strong showings in two overwhelmingly White states have made a lot of these voters more comfortable with supporting him.

2. The nasty war of words between Clinton, Obama, and their surrogates over race shocked, insulted, and/or disappointed Black voters. Pundits argued that women voters in New Hampshire did not take kindly to “the politics of pile on” that Clinton endured at the New Hampshire debate and on the campaign trail. As a result, they punished Obama, Edwards, and maybe even the media (who almost seemed a bit too eager to write her political obituary) by voting for Clinton. The same phenomenon could be at work in South Carolina regarding Black voters and Obama. Bringing up Martin Luther King’s assassination, having campaign staff send out rumors about his religion, and using surrogates like Black Entertainment Television’s founder to allude to his drug use may have earned Clinton an uncoveted spot on their blacklists.

However, this is not to say that this mass defection of Blacks to Obama is a bad thing for her campaign. After all, Clinton does not need any of her surrogates’ remarks to be true. As long as they succeed in turning Obama into “a Black candidate” that Black voters (and only Black voters) rally around, she would be happy to cede South Carolina to Obama in exchange for taking the lion’s share of states and delegates on Super Tuesday when far more Whites have their say. Clinton knows that about 85-90% of Blacks “come home” on Election Day and vote Democratic, and she knows this trend is likely to continue this November. So even if these Black voters don’t support her in the primaries, she knows she can count on their support later on when she’s the nominee. And more importantly, she also knows she has enough support among Whites and Latinos nationwide (as the Nevada results suggest) to more than offset losing the Black vote to Obama in South Carolina and a few other Southern Super Tuesday states.

Could Clinton win South Carolina? It’s not likely, but it is possible. Of course, the bar of expectations is set the highest for Obama, so anything short of a victory for him there would be seen as a huge disappointment. A Clinton victory would send Obama limping into Super Tuesday, where he makes his last stand. After all, it’s hard to sustain momentum when you win the first contest and then come in second three times in a row.

The more likely scenario is that Clinton places second and writes off the state as being one she couldn’t win anyway. Implicit in this statement would be an attribution to race as a factor. “When I lose the Black vote to Obama by 40 points and Blacks make up 45% of the vote, it’s going to be pretty tough for me to overcome that.” This kind of loaded statement could be both factual and conniving, as it would subtly remind Black voters that Obama is “their” candidate while also reminding White voters that Obama is not. Winning 60% of the White vote allows for more political success than losing 60% of the Black vote, so Clinton knows how to play the numbers game, and she knows how to use race strategically. In light of the racially-tinged remarks coming from her campaign over the past two weeks, I would not expect anything different from her.

Clinton knows that regardless of how well she finishes in South Carolina, she will live to fight again on Super Tuesday. This is not to say that the state is meaningless to her campaign though, as sneaking out with a victory, either in terms of the outright vote or in beating expectations, would be the political uppercut that sends Obama to his knees on February 5.

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