Voters rejected the politics of division in historic Democratic turnout
Facing a loss in South Carolina, the Clintons did their best to spring a trap on Barack Obama. Their plan was to lower expectations for Hillary, while making an Obama victory appear meaningless. As an unnamed top Clinton adviser admitted to the Associated Press, they would paint Obama as “the black candidate” in a state where African-American voters were 47% of the Democratic primary electorate in 2004.
Until the polls closed, it looked like things were going according to schedule. Hillary signaled South Carolina wasn’t a priority by campaigning elsewhere for most of the week leading up to the primary, leaving Bill to tour the state on her behalf.
Pre-election polls seemed to show Obama’s support among white Democrats in S.C. slipping to 10%. A Wall Street Journal headline from the day before the primary epitomized the effects of the Clintons’ spin by proclaiming “To Truly Win in Carolina, Obama Needs Large Margin.” The reporter speculated Obama “will have to win by a double-digit margin in order for voters nationwide to perceive South Carolina as a real victory.”
But despite Bill’s pledge to go door-to-door for Hillary in the black community if necessary, black voters in South Carolina were turned off by the Clinton campaign’s increasing reliance on racially coded appeals against Obama.
One high profile episode occurred when Clinton supporter Bob Johnson, the billionaire head of BET, raised the specter of Obama’s drug use as a young man at a rally in Columbia, S.C. Defending an earlier comment by Hillary that “Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act," Johnson said, “that is the way the legislative process works in this nation and that takes political leadership. That’s all Hillary was saying.”
He then added, “Hillary and Bill Clinton…have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues since Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood – and I won’t say what he was doing, but he said it in (his) book.”
When called on it, Johnson shamelessly denied he was talking about drugs, claiming “my comments today were referring to Barack Obama’s time spent as a community organizer, and nothing else. Any other suggestion is simply irresponsible and incorrect.”
The month before, Billy Shaheen had been forced to step down as the co-chair of Clinton’s New Hampshire campaign when he first raised the drug use issue against Obama. But this time, the Clintons refused to disassociate themselves from Johnson’s remarks.
On the day of the primary, Bill tried to downplay the significance of an Obama victory by invoking the specter of Jesse Jackson. Asked by a reporter why it was taking “two Clintons to beat” Obama, he helpfully pointed out that "Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in '84 and '88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here."
Despite his groundbreaking career as an outspoken civil rights activist and the first black American to make a serious bid for the White House, (and to knee-jerk racists, because of these things), Jackson remains a controversial figure to some voters. As CNN commentator Roland Martin put it, Jackson “is beloved in black America but stirs hatred in many whites.”
Clearly, Bill was trying to tar Obama with a negative brush. Either by associating him with Jackson solely because both candidates are black, or trying to remind voters that Jesse ultimately came up short in his unsuccessful runs for the presidency.
Obama has already far exceeded Jackson’s performance in the early primary states. In nearly all-white (91%) Iowa, Obama won with 38% of the vote, versus Jackson’s 9% when he finished fourth in 1988. In New Hampshire, Obama was a close second to Clinton with 37%, compared with 8% twenty years ago for Jackson.
In 1984, Jackson won South Carolina with 25% of the vote, and in ’88 he won again with 54%. But in both years, South Carolina held caucuses, and turnout was less than a tenth of the number who voted in this year’s primary. And Jesse Jackson was born in South Carolina.
Jackson’s insurgent campaigns were chronically underfunded and ran on shoestring budgets. By contrast, Obama has assembled one of the biggest fundraising operations in the history of presidential politics, raising $103 million last year, and an astounding $32 million during January 2008. Significantly, his funds have come from both large donors and a diverse, nationwide network of small contributors.
One of the highest ranking white elected officials to back Jackson in 1988 was the Agriculture Commissioner of Texas, progressive Jim Hightower. This year, the Democratic party establishment is genuinely split between Obama and Hillary Clinton. Liberal icon Ted Kennedy is only the latest prominent white Democrat to endorse Obama, following John Kerry, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, and a string of sitting Senators and Governors from red states including Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE), Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
The minute S.C. polls closed, major news organizations immediately called the race for Obama, based on exit polls showing his huge win. He ended up with 55% of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 27% and 18% for John Edwards.
As the shape of Obama’s landslide victory became clear, the Clintons (and reporters who fell for their race-baiting spin) were left with egg on their faces. Obama won more than twice as many votes as Clinton. He beat Clinton among independents by 40% to 23%. He carried black voters by a 4-1 margin.
But he also won a quarter of white voters, far more than the 10% forecast by pre-election polls. He won a majority of white voters under 30. He won nearly as many white men as Clinton. Obama probably would have done even better among white voters without S.C. native son John Edwards in the race, who took 40% of the overall white vote.
Carol Fisher, a middle-aged white voter from Greenville, South Carolina, explained her vote for Barack Obama when interviewed outside the polls. “I was just voting for, to me, the most attractive candidate overall. It had nothing to do with the fact that Hillary Clinton is a woman, so I would want to vote for her. I just think I’m voting for the best candidate.”
The competitive race sparked the second-highest voter turnout in history for a South Carolina primary - 530,000, just shy of the record 573,000 set in the 2000 Bush vs. McCain Republican primary smackdown. Even more amazing, voters who participated in the Democratic primary outnumbered the 446,000 who showed up for the Republican presidential contest a week earlier. It was the highest-ever Democratic turnout in the country’s most reliably Republican state.
One behind-the-scenes factor firing up the huge turnout was Obama’s impressive field S.C. organization, the best in the state among presidential contenders of either party. On primary day, Team Obama fielded an army of 9,000 volunteers, flushing out voters from 150 different staging sites across South Carolina. By comparison, Hillary Clinton’s emergency ground operation in New Hampshire that helped pull her to victory numbered only 4,000.
Unfortunately for the Clintons, their plan to put Obama in a black box backfired. Not only did Obama win by a bi-racial landslide, but Bill Clinton’s legacy as a uniter of black and white Americans is now at risk.
In his victory speech, Obama emphasized this election "is not about rich versus poor or young versus old, and it's not about black versus white. This election is about the past versus the future." A historic number of South Carolina voters seem to have agreed with him.