Obama Win Defined by Race

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Matt Rourke / AP

Sen. Barack Obama greets people during a campaign stop in Pennsylvania on March 11

Illinois Senator Barack Obama easily captured a majority of Mississippi's 33 Democratic delegates Tuesday as his one-on-one battle with Hillary Clinton race verged once again on deeper racial turmoil. With 90% of all precincts reporting, Obama led Clinton in Misissippi by a margin of nearly three to two.

Obama's win — his second in four days — came at the end of a day of cross-campaign finger-pointing following comments by the party's 1984 vice presidential nominee, Geraldine Ferraro, a Clinton supporter who suggested that Obama's front-runner status owed more to his race than his talent or effort. Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod accused the Clinton campaign of quietly countenancing such divisive comments; later in the day, Hillary Clinton called Ferraro's comments "regrettable." Obama called Ferraro's remarks "absurd."

The steady erosion in relations between the Obama and Clinton camps — less than a week has passed since Obama's foreign policy advisor (and TIME columnist) Samatha Power called Clinton "a monster" — was almost certainly one reason why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared on Tuesday that the chances of a joint ticket between the two Democrats were now impossible.

Broken down, the Mississippi vote had an unmistakable racial descant — and unmistakable limits for Obama. Exit polls revealed once again an emerging racial divide that has opened in the Democratic party between whites who tend by healthy margins to favor Clinton and blacks who overwhelmingly favor Obama. African Americans made up nearly half of the Democratic vote in Mississippi — and 90% of those voters, according to exit polls, pulled the lever for Obama, his strongest showing yet among African Americans. But Obama did poorly among whites, winning only 30%, according to exit polls. While this split was visible in Alabama and the border state of Tennessee earlier this year, it was visible in Ohio's primary last week, too.

Mississippi is one of the most reliably Republican states in presidential elections. Only a Democrat who could win 35% to 40% of the white vote, while holding onto a lopsided percentage of blacks, could put the state in play in a head-to-head match with a Republican in the fall. Obama's 30% showing in the primary against Clinton falls short of that target.

Nonetheless, the win extends Obama's lead over Clinton in delegates by a net seven or eight delegates — a small number overall but important nonetheless. Hard as it is for a candidate to build a lead in a primary system ruled by a system of proportional allocation, it is even harder to catch up once you fall behind.

The Mississippi results underscored another recurring factor in the 2008 campaign. Democratic turnout, which was barely more than 75,000 in the 2004 primary, on Tuesday totaled more than four times that number. "I am grateful to the people of Mississippi for joining the millions of Americans from every corner of the country who have chosen to turn the page on the failed politics of the past and embrace our movement for change," Obama said Tuesday night.