Can Clinton Make Mississippi a Race?

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Emmanuel Dunand / AFP / Getty

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama speaks at a town hall meeting held at the Mississippi University for Women in Columbus, Mississippi.

Even Wayne Dowdy, the head of the Mississippi Democratic Party, thinks Barack Obama will win his state's primary on Tuesday, and it's Dowdy's job not to take sides. Yet there are good reasons for Obama to be anxiously watching the returns today.

Black voters in Texas didn't show up in record numbers for Obama — turning out, as a percentage of the vote, in lower numbers than in 2004. The Obama campaign is hoping the low turnout was a one-time fluke; if it wasn't, states like Mississippi, where black voters made up 56% of primary voters in 2004, could get a lot tougher to win for the Illinois Senator — not to mention states like Pennsylvania, where blacks made up roughly 13%.

"Senator Obama will carry Mississippi," Dowdy said in an interview. "But Senator Clinton will be competitive. Senator Clinton will get a number of the delegates because she had a good base in Mississippi."

At least one poll has Hillary Clinton surprisingly close given the state's demographics. An Insider Advantage poll of 412 registered voters taken on March 6 found Obama leading Clinton 46% to 40%. The poll also contained two other surprises: Obama led Clinton among women, usually a Clinton stronghold, 51% to 39%, while Clinton led Obama among Republican voters (68% to 29%) and independents (53% to 23%). The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

"There is some good news for Clinton in this survey. First, she is winning independent voters. Second, we have heard rumors that Republicans voters might engage in the primary in higher than normal numbers, so that they can vote for Clinton, and thus keep the Democratic battle going. There is some evidence that this trend might be developing," said InsiderAdvantage's Matt Towery. "Finally, Clinton has a demographic that she could possibly go after to gain votes. She currently trails among women in Mississippi, but leads among men. If she could turn the uniqueness of becoming the first woman President into a major talking point, she might make additional progress with Mississippi women."

At the same time, two other polls, ARG and Rasmussen, show Obama leading by 24 and 14 percentage points respectively. And although the primary is open, voters must have registered 30 days ago to vote, which could limit the number of Republicans making a last-minute decision to back Clinton. But the limited registration may also hurt Obama. "The heat of a campaign matters in getting people engaged," says Bob Brown, a political science professor at the University of Mississippi. "Thirty days ago, that heat didn't exist in Mississippi — not nearly as much as it does now, anyway. So it's possible that depressed registration may have an impact on turnout."

Clinton isn't simply ceding the state's 33 pledged delegates. She aired both TV and radio ads on Monday. She has an office in Jackson and a 300-person steering committee. She has spent two full days campaigning there as have her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and daughter Chelsea — though Bill Clinton tried to play down expectations with reporters in Mississippi over the weekend. "We got started late," he said. "We started behind organizationally."

Obama, taking nothing for granted, spent Monday campaigning in Jackson, Greenville and Columbus, where his town hall meeting drew a crowd of 1,700 people, according to Columbus fire marshal Todd Weathers. He has seven offices statewide and is running two TV ads plus radio advertisements. "I think you can expect to see Obama win in a fairly easy fashion," Brown said. "Mississippi is not exactly what you would call 'Hillary country,' and I suspect she is viewed with some suspicion even among Democrats, most of whom are fairly conservative."

For better or for worse, today's results are likely to be picked over again and again for any kind of trends — blacks, whites, men, women, young, old — as Misssissippi is the last state to vote for the next six weeks, until Pennsylvania's April 22 primary. As they like to say in Mississippi, this election will now start running slower than molasses rolling uphill in January.