Setting South Carolina guidelines: Could it be anything else than Obama-Clinton-Edwards?

2 hours from polls closing, we shall try to set a few expectations -- no predictions -- for South Carolina's Democratic primary.

Ahead in South Carolina for most of the fall, Hillary Clinton relied on her strength among black voters to keep Obama away. They reversed positions among the black votes around December, allowing Obama to pull away from Clinton. And throughout January, Obama solidified his lead among African-American voters, first on the strength of his Iowa triumph and then on the basis of the electorate's racial polarization following the controversies on race between the two campaigns. It is truly stunning that Clinton was winning the black vote a few months ago.

In the days leading up to New Hampshire, the Clinton campaign was pretty much ready to concede both Nevada and South Carolina as surveys showed a widening Obama lead in the Palmetto State. But then New Hampshire happened and the dynamics of the campaign changed overnight. But it was too late for Clinton to catch up the black vote. And she stayed away for most of this week, dispatching her husband instead to try to keep the margin close without wasting too much time in a contest she did not believe she could win.

The winner of the state back in 2004, John Edwards was marginalized for most of the campaign, but he is closing strong and looking for a second-place finish. Though the polls have not been kind to him, they have picked up some late momentum of his. The problem for Edwards has always been his non-existence among the black electorate, where polls show he gets between 3% and 7%. Despite his strength among whites (where he could very well pull ahead of Clinton) that made it impossible for Edwards to break through like he did in 2004.

And here we are now. The expectations are set for an Obama-Clinton-Edwards finish, so anything other than that will be a huge story. And keep in mind that margins could change more easily than in other contests: Given the huge racial polarization that is taking place here, a small change in the proportion of voters will lead to numbers to shift more than usual. Whether blacks represent a small majority or small minority of voters could make the difference between Obama blowing Clinton by massive double-digits or if Clinton can spin this as a come back by holding him to single-digits. And recent indications that Clinton is getting some female black voters back makes the race even more confused, underscoring how much we don't know about tonight's results in an electorate that is much more conflicted than in previous states. Similarly, a larger proportion of whites or of independents could help Edwards storm up and take on Clinton -- and that would be truly disastrous news for the New York Senator (keep in mind that she still has Florida to recover prior to Super Tuesday).

If the margins are pretty much what we expect and the order of finish is O-C-E (which is obviously a big if, two hours from polls closing), it is unlikely that the results will change that many fundamentals heading into February 5th. Clinton won Nevada last week, relieving the pressure of winning South Carolina. One thing the election could affect is Edwards's viability next week. Even if he comes in third, a strong showing by Edwards (say, over 20%) could put him back in the race and make Edwards voters in February 5th states stick with him after all. That could allow Edwards to pick up many delegates then and make it that much more difficult for Obama and Clinton to gather a majority of delegates -- and in the possibility of a brokered convention, that would put Edwards in the position of king-maker.

Also, expect some Clinton surrogates to try and portray Obama as the "black candidate" who is most strong in the South... That would be very unfair and unjustified given Obama's Iowa victory, but who knows what that could do to the electorate of February 5th.

The potential troubles Obama could have because of this are heightened by the media's determination to paint the Democratic race as a racial battle. Remember, the NYT illustrated one of its first article on the subject with pictures of Elizabeth Stanton and Frederick Douglass. And the media's choice to run with this storyline only accentuates the polarization and actually does make the electorate polarized. The Politico's Ben Smith points out a truly amazing example of how far the media will go to portray the racial polarization. He links to this graphic on MSNBC's website today:

A quick glance at the picture gives the impression that the black and white women are staring each other down in a racially charged confrontation. And this squares with the subtitle of race as "a subtext" of the election. But look at the photograph more closely and you will realize that... all these women are Edwards supporters and holding signs for the former North Carolina Senator.



  • Duh, can't you see that it's an argument over painted vs. official signs? *sarcasm* I think that's a ridiculous picture.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 26 January, 2008 20:07  

  • Fascinating, I would have said that a quick glance at the photo shows a number of John Edwards supporters... Then again, I am not scanning news websites for racially bias photography... but that's obviously just me

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 26 January, 2008 20:31  

  • Seriously... What makes Edwards think he has a chance at the Whitehouse, when he can't even win in his own house?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 26 January, 2008 20:49  

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