Obama's Win Reshapes the Race

  • Share
  • Read Later
(l. to r.): Charles Rex Arbogast / AP; Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

There was only one way to describe Barack Obama's victory over Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in South Carolina: It was a rout. "After four great contests in every corner of this country, we have the most votes, the most delegates, and the most diverse coalition of Americans that we've seen in a long, long time," Obama declared at his victory celebration in Columbia. "There are young and old; rich and poor. They are black and white; Latino and Asian and Native American. They are Democrats from Des Moines and Independents from Concord, and yes, some Republicans from rural Nevada and we've got young people from all across this country who've never had a reason to participate until now."

Obama's impressive win meant all the more given the nature of politics in South Carolina, a state whose history is fraught with race and class. Some observers wondered if the state's voters were becoming more racially polarized in the final days before the primary. That speculation was fueled by one late McClatchy/MSNBC survey that suggested Obama could expect to receive no more than 10% of the white vote, half of what the same poll had shown only a week before. But Obama instead won about a quarter of the white vote overall, and around half of young white voters, on his way to a commanding 55% of the total vote (Clinton finished second with roughly 27% and Edwards came in third with 18%). The excitement around Obama's candidacy pushed turnout to record levels — a kind of surge, says Obama strategist Cornell Belcher, that "is something only Barack Obama is capable of bringing to the table."

It is a powerful message for the Illinois Senator to take into the Super Tuesday round of primaries on February 5. "In nine days-nine short days — nearly half the nation will have the chance to join us in saying that we are tired of business-as-usual in Washington, we are hungry for change, and we are ready to believe again," Obama declared. His South Carolina victory will be topped by an endorsement by Caroline Kennedy, in a Sunday New York Times op-ed headlined: "A President Like My Father." The move will serve as a powerful, symbolic counter to the most visible surrogate in this race, Bill Clinton — the boy whose own political awakening famously came when he shook JFK's hand as a 16-year-old as part of an American Legion Boy's Nation visit to the nation's capital.

Still, the sobering reality for the Obama campaign is that Clinton's massive organization will present a formidable challenge in the 20-plus states that will be voting on February 5. Clinton, knowing that bad news was coming, didn't even hold a final rally for her supporters in South Carolina; shortly after the polls closed, her campaign plane was headed for Tennessee. She issued a terse written statement noting that she had called Obama to "wish him well," and adding, "We now turn our attention to the millions of Americans who will make their voices heard in Florida and the twenty-two states as well as American Samoa who will vote on February 5th." Bill Clinton, at a rally in Missouri, added: "Now we go to February 5, when millions of Americans finally get in the act."

The former President was actually the first Clinton to speak in the wake of Obama's triumph Saturday evening, and it only underscored how his outsized, vocal presence on the trail has threatened to overshadow his wife. Earlier in the day, Clinton had churlishly compared Obama's victory to that of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, a remark that will likely further fuel disaffection about the Clintons amongst African-American voters. There was evidence that Obama's victory was also a repudiation of the brand of hard-knuckled politics that both Clintons had brought to the South Carolina contest. Exit polls indicated that Bill Clinton's campaigning made a difference to about 6 in 10 South Carolina Democratic primary voters. But of those voters, 47% went for Barack Obama, while only 38% went for Hillary Clinton. Fourteen percent voted for John Edwards. The Obama campaign gleefully noted that in the mostly black precincts that Bill Clinton visted in Greenville, as much as 80% of the vote went to Obama.