Everyone had expected Sen. Barack Obama to win South Carolina. As black voters seemed to unify their support, Sen. Hillary Clinton all but abandoned the state in the days leading up to the primary and was airborne to Tennessee as polls closed Saturday night. But the story of an “inevitable” Obama win in South Carolina was overshadowed by his mammoth 55 percent victory. With a more than two-to-one margin over Clinton, Obama not only secured much-needed momentum, he likely upped the threat level for Clinton’s camp as well as those anxious Republicans who have been salivating for a bout with “the bitch.”
The more than 530,000 voters in the Democratic Primary proved, much like Iowa, that Obama could bring people to the polls who have never voted before.
“We’ve got young people all across this country who have never had a reason to participate until now,” he said after the win, going on to highlight his broad swath of support. “We are hungry for change, and we are ready to believe again.”
The fact that he could excite not only Americans who hope, but Americans who vote, is a factor that an already stumbling Republican presidential field could do without. However, GOP State Party Chair Katon Dawson said in a statement following the results that he was “more confident than ever that South Carolina will support the GOP candidate.”
If Dawson’s not worried, he’s not paying attention. The Republican Primary drew out only 445,000, much less than the Democrats in one of the redder of red states. Obama’s 294,799 votes bested the combined totals of John McCain and Mike Huckabee just a week earlier.
But there’s still hope for Republicans looking to go a round with Clinton. While Obama’s victory included more than half of white voters under 30, CNN polling put him in third among older whites who will be voting in larger numbers in the coming states.
With so much hinging on where the black vote would land in South Carolina, along with comments by the Clinton campaign that were found offensive by some in the black community, the story of race in this campaign likely played out more in the run-up to South Carolina than it will at any other time in this campaign. Former President Bill Clinton’s stop in Charleston made national news when he railed against another question about race from a CNN reporter. After two hours of answering voter questions about health care, housing, the economy, gays in the military, and immigration, his argument was that the media was focusing their coverage too narrowly on race.
While he was fielding these questions, both Obama and Hillary Clinton were dodging them, willing to instead attack each other on an even more personal level, highlighted in the Jerry Springer send-up they offered at a Myrtle Beach debate five days before voters hit the polls. The tit-for-tat put former Sen. John Edwards in a role he hasn’t gotten a shot at in past debates: the winner.
In a call to reporters the next morning, Edwards began his week-long campaign of framing himself as representing “the adult wing of the Democratic Party.” But, in the end, any inroads he made in support (just nine percent behind Clinton) got lost in Obama’s superstar win. Edwards told supporters Saturday night that “the three of us” will move on to Feb. 5, but South Carolina likely gave the last sure sign that we’re looking at a two-person race.
In his visit to the Cistern earlier this month, Obama alluded to attacks by Clinton’s campaign. Two weeks later, in his closing pitch to voters in North Charleston and during his victory speech in Columbia, Obama pointedly called out the Clintons.
“We know that real leadership is about candor and judgement and the ability to rally Americans from all walks of life around a common purpose, a higher purpose,” he said.
Recent attack ads from Clinton that suggested Obama supported Republican ideals also received his ire.
“We’re up against the idea that it’s acceptable to say anything and do anything to win an election,” he told supporters. “But we know that this is exactly what’s wrong with our politics. This is why people don’t believe what their leaders say anymore. This is why they tune out.”
In the end, Obama seemed ready to put the competing storm clouds behind him and return to the arguments for hope and change, instead of scorched earth and battle scars.
“This election is about the past versus the future,” he said. “It’s about whether we settle for the same divisions and distractions and drama that passes for politics today or whether we reach for a politics of common sense and innovation, a politics of shared sacrifice and shared prosperity.”