With his SC triumph, Obama brilliantly beat all expectations and set himself up for a dramatic run to Super Tuesday

The Clinton campaign was prepared to spin the results of South Carolina and argue that the demographics of the state guaranteed an Obama victory. The press was about to create trouble for Obama's campaign by casting him as the "black candidate" who won a primary on the strength of the black vote. But that was before the phenomenal margin of Obama's triumph became evident. With almost all precincts reporting, Obama is ahead 55% to 27% for Hillary Clinton, with Edwards held off at 18%. That means that not only did Obama unexpectedly cross the 50% threshold but he also got double the number of Clinton's votes.

Obama built up his margin by crushing his adversaries among black voters -- 55% of the electorate -- who gave him 80% of the vote. But he also exceeded expectations among the white votes. Polls had him hovering above 15% of the white electorate, but exit polls showed him getting 24% of whites, more than holding his own against Edwards and Clinton who stayed in the high 30s. Obama also looks to have pretty much tied Clinton among white males.

In other words, the election's storyline of an electorate dramatically polarized along racial lines did not come to pass. The Obama campaign was worried that a big win here would be cast as natural for a "black candidate" and that that would lead him to not be able to compete effectively come February 5th, but it instead got the ideal scenario: A win and headlines such as the New York Times's talking about "a coalition of whites and blacks."

Two hours before the results, I wrote that, "If the margins are pretty much what we expect... it is unlikely that the results will change that many fundamentals heading into February 5th." Clearly, the margin between Obama and Clinton was not what we expected, though Clinton at least avoided the debacle of third-place and Edwards did not manage to keep it very close. First of all, the racial polarization storyline -- which would have gone a long way towards undermining an Obama win -- will not play out very far (despite Pat Buchanan's assertions on MSNBC). Second, there is no doubt that Obama will be boosted by such results. A 27% point rout of Hillary Clinton is so stunning that it will make a lot of people look at Obama again, as well as give him a lot of earned media. And that is key to Obama's Super Tuesday strategy where he needs to make up a lot of ground fast in major states across the country, from California to Missouri.

Given how high expectations were for Obama, it is most impressive that he got the kind of win that will still resonate in more states. Clinton's hope, of course, is to get a big win in Florida on Tuesday. And despite the state not having any delegates, it will be hard for the press to ignore a contest in which more than a million voters go to the polls. Will that be enough to stop the Obama momentum? Don't forget that about a third of Florida voters have already voted early or absentee according to most estimations, so that is a big share of the vote that will not be affected by the South Carolina results -- and all indications are that Clinton has won big among that group.

Clinton's biggest problem right now is that her strategy is once again being put in question, just as it was after her Iowa loss. It is telling that Obama's collapse in New Hampshire did not lead to this kind of introspection, nor did his Nevada win. But watching the coverage last night, the consensus was that Bill Clinton was directly responsible for his wife's humiliating defeat.
And indeed, comments like the one Bill Clinton made yesterday undoubtedly crossed the line of what is acceptable. Asked an unrelated question in the afternoon, Bill unexpectedly brought up Jesse Jackson in a surprisingly transparent attempt to bring up race: "Jesse Jacksonwon South Carolina twice, in ’84 and ’88. And he ran a good campaign. Senator Obama has run a good campaign here, he has run a good campaign everywhere."

As the consensus now is that Bill Clinton is radioactive, he will no doubt become so with every one of his words being dissected. Obama's criticism that he is running against both Clintons will be treated much more legitimately after the South Carolina results. Expect a deluge of stories like this one from the New York Times.

It is worth asking, however, how much if at all Bill did hurt Hillary yesterday. There were two questions in the exit poll to measure Clinton's impact. First, Obama overwhelmingly prevailed among those who made up their mind in the past 3 days -- the period in which Bill's criticisms were the most widely aired. But of the 60% who said that Bill's campaigning was important in their choice, Obama was ahead but by a margin much inferior to his overall lead, so there is no explicit backlash registered here. Another statistic that we can use is Obama's 24% among white voters -- what accounts for his rise out of the teens? If it is whites reacting to an attempt to make the electorate polarized and make them look racist, Bill Clinton could indeed be faulted. Overall, this will force the Clinton camp to reassess how they want to use Bill Clinton.

And just like that the campaign goes national. The candidates cannot really campaign in Florida -- though Clinton will reportedly travel there for private fundraiser! -- so they now have to concentrate on February 5th. Obama will have to transition fast from states in which he had campaigned for months and in which he had an impeccable organization to states in which he will have to rely on momentum and buzz to counter Clinton's organizational advantage. The polls still show Hillary with significant leads in most Feb. 5th states, for example in California and Missouri, for example, that Obama needs to target; he particularly needs to attack the interior states to show that Clinton has trouble winning anywhere but the coasts.

The next few days will tell us how much South Carolina has changed the situation in the Democratic race, though remember how short-lived Obama's bounce out of Iowa (or Clinton's bounce out of New Hampshire and Nevada) ended up being.



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