Appreciating Obama's win in South Carolina

With record voter turnout and the support of white voters under 30, he can't be boxed in as the "black candidate." But we still don't know much about Super Tuesday.

Published January 27, 2008 9:46PM (EST)

The best thing about Barack Obama's victory in South Carolina was its decisiveness. Despite Bill Clinton's surreal attempt to dismiss it by comparing it to Jesse Jackson's two victories there in 1984 and 1988 (more on that later), there is no comparison. Fighting two tough competitors in Hillary Clinton and John Edwards (Jackson faced little competition from other big Democrats), Obama inspired record turnout, and despite dire warnings of race war from the TV pundit crowd, he got a respectable quarter of the white vote and more than half the votes of whites under 30. In South Carolina. No matter who your candidate is, that has to be thrilling. Plus the Democrats' turnout was even higher than the Republicans' last Saturday, something nobody predicted.

I was also glad Obama won decisively because it limited -- somewhat -- the power of the pundits to spin the race any way they please. On Saturday morning I watched South Carolina state Rep. Bakari Sellars get increasingly irritated as MSNBC's Chuck Todd suggested that a close win wouldn't be much of a win for Obama. Sellars, an Obama supporter, jumped in to ask how much he had to win by, so the campaign could know in advance what victory was. Even though I think MSNBC has been wildly pro-Obama (more on that later, too), I shared Sellars' frustration with the way pundits think they get to decide what's victory and what's defeat, both before and after actual people vote. Sellars also seemed a little irritated by hosts Mika Brzezinski and David Shuster's kvelling over the fact that he's only 23, but it's hard not to be blown away by the fact that ... well, he's only 23. He was terrific parrying with Todd. One of the things I love about primary season is getting to see new leaders around the country.

On Bill Clinton's remarks: I give up. I have to agree with Glenn Greenwald here: It was singularly graceless for Clinton to greet Obama's victory with the observation that Jackson won South Carolina twice, too. Whether you agree with the pundits that the former president is to blame for the sometimes racially bitter tenor of the South Carolina race (and I still don't), it was a time for Clinton to be magnanimous, and he was small. And it will forever be harder to defend him, as I have, from charges of "racial coding" in his criticism of Obama. I was furious Saturday morning when MSNBC's Joe Scarborough claimed "it's just like 1998 all over again," but he was right, in one sense. You had a lot of the same crazed pundits with their pitchforks, out to destroy Clinton for reasons I'll never understand. And then he helped them out.

On the other hand (yes, you knew there would be one), again, there's entirely too much gleeful dancing on Hillary Clinton's supposed grave by the punditocracy. I literally had to turn the television off last night when the folks at MSNBC began beating up on her for not making a concession speech (Bloomberg's Margaret Carlson snapped that she lacked "grace"), without noting that Obama didn't make one in Nevada last Saturday. They all knew Bill Clinton cost his wife the election going in; they were thrilled to finally have the evidence.

But honestly, even though I resent Bill Clinton's post-loss Jesse Jackson remark, I still don't believe his tough campaigning before the vote cost his wife South Carolina. (Skip this paragraph if you're already bored by this topic.) Both Glenn and our Walter Shapiro used a CNN exit poll finding that 58 percent of voters thought Clinton's campaigning was "important," and they broke 48 to 37 percent Obama-Clinton. On the other hand, Obama beat her 55-27 percent overall, and 48-37 is better than that; clearly Obama's margin was much higher among voters who said Bill Clinton's campaigning was unimportant. Unfortunately, CNN never asked those questions before, so we can't directly compare his effect on South Carolina to his effect on other states.

But in New Hampshire the network did ask whether voters' opinion of the former president was favorable or unfavorable, and looked at how they voted. A "favorable" opinion of her husband increased Clinton's overall 39-37 edge over Obama to 43-33, while an "unfavorable" feeling flipped voters to 50-13 Obama. You might be able to argue that Clinton helped his wife more (or hurt her less) in South Carolina than New Hampshire if you knew what percent of voters said he mattered at all. No matter how you parse the numbers, though, I think the fact that such a large share of South Carolina voters said the former president's campaigning was important and that more of them broke for Obama raises questions about Clinton's tactics. Here's hoping he finds a different voice in the upcoming races.

But as I try to parse moldy New Hampshire exit poll numbers on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I'm forced to do something my pals at MSNBC probably won't: admit I'm inclined to look for ways to defend the Clintons from astonishingly unfair media attacks, because of the despicable media crusade against them in the 1990s. (I'll say it again: That doesn't mean I favor Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in this race.) I'll be looking for my friends Joe Scarborough and Chris Matthews to admit they're inclined to pillory the Clintons because that's what they did in the '90s. All the talking heads seem just too happy to have another chance to punish the president whose public approval ratings soared even as they pummeled him a decade ago. But as I mused yesterday, it's a mistake to fight the last war. On to Super Tuesday.

A last word about South Carolina. I loved Obama's speech. I was moved by his story of a Strom Thurmond staffer working for him, culminating in, "Don't tell me we can't change; yes, we can!" Yes, we can. I will also note that his sharp jabs against Clinton (without naming her) would seem to indicate that, um, he didn't really agree with me that the tone of the Democratic primary to date has been just fine (despite his claim to the contrary the other day). It's OK; I kind of like Angry Obama, although I remember a smart letter in a John Edwards thread from the always interesting deloresflower, observing that it's probably more risky for Obama to get angry than it is for Edwards, given racial stereotypes. Sunny Obama is probably going to have the most crossover appeal, especially important if he's the Democratic nominee.

Still, I think some of his supporters remain unrealistic about what's to be expected in a tough campaign. Take everything the Clintons have done to date, multiply it by at least 10, and then you'll have a picture of the fall race between Obama and a Republican nominee. What will Roger Stone, the genius behind an obscenely misogynist anti-Hillary group (I was about to spell it out, as he does, but you'll have to click through), do with Obama? If you think this race has been brutal, you're going to want to spend the general election season far, far away, in a place without media, if Obama is the nominee. Of course the same rules will apply if Clinton wins, but her backers seem more resigned, for better or worse, to the nature of the coming fight.

Coming out of South Carolina, Clinton has to be worried about her low support among white Southern males, who supported her and Obama equally. Meanwhile, Obama's overwhelming victory there may not tell us a lot about the primary race to come, or about November. (I apologize to Edwards supporters, but while he could be a king- or queenmaker along the way, I don't think he has much chance to win another state after losing his birthplace, South Carolina, which he won in 2004. I'd be happy if he proved me wrong, since his campaign's emphasis on poverty and economic justice most closely matches my own values.) The Illinois senator has won in a disproportionately white state (Iowa) and in the disproportionately African-American state of South Carolina. We now move on to big states and small with different versions of diversity: Latinos and Asians; big cities, big suburbs, exurbs; the coasts and the middle, North, South, East, West all at the same time. I'm not sure what either candidate's wins in any of the four early states can tell us about the next few weeks, but I'm excited to watch it unfold. It still might not be over Super Tuesday, but we'll know a lot more after that.

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections