Former Pres. Bill Clinton caused a stir this week by comparing Barack Obama's success in South Carolina to Jesse Jackson's in 1988 and 1984. But an analysis of the data shows that, while there are some similarities, Obama has already crossed racial divides in his presidential bid that Jackson never did.
In overwhelmingly white Iowa and New Hampshire, Obama significantly outperformed Jackson, and Obama has broader national appeal now than Jackson did 20 years ago.
Obama picked up 38 percent of Iowa caucusgoers earlier this month; Jackson scored just 9 percent in 1988. There was a similarly wide 37 percent to 8 percent gap between how the two did in the New Hampshire primary.
It is true that Obama's 55 percent share of the vote in South Carolina is about equal to Jackson's reported support from 1988. But in 1988 the state party held caucuses, not a primary, drawing fewer than a tenth the number of voters who turned out this year. (Rev. Jackson was also born in the state.)
Percentage of votes in early states: Obama 2008 Jackson 1988 Jackson 1984 Iowa 38% 9% 3% N.H. 37% 8% 5% S.C. 55% 54% 25%* *Uncommitted: 53%
Comparing Obama's national standing to Jackson's from 1988 also reveals a different type of African American candidate.
Twenty years ago, Jackson fared worse among white voters across the country than Obama does today. In a January 1988 Washington Post-ABC News poll - when Jackson shared the national lead with Gary Hart - Jackson registered at 14 percent among whites, well under half the level of support Obama enjoyed in a January 2008 Post-ABC poll (33 percent). This year, 77 percent of white Democrats have a favorable impression of Obama; in 1988, barely half, 51 percent, viewed Jackson positively.
The 1988 vote itself was also more highly polarized than the early 2008 contests have been. In combined 1988 ABC News exit polls from that year's Super Tuesday states, 92 percent of African American voters opted for Jackson, but were joined by just 9 percent of white voters.
Here's the breakout from each of the 16 states holding primaries March 8, 1988; Jackson won five of these states, all with significant percentages of African American voters.
How Jackson fared on Super Tuesday 1988* White voters Black voters Alabama 6% 95% Arkansas 6 93 Florida 7 87 Georgia 6 93 Kentucky 7 -- Louisiana 6 96 Maryland 11 88 Massachusetts 16 -- Mississippi 6 92 Missouri 12 -- North Carolina 7 94 Oklahoma 8 84 Rhode Island 16 70 Tennessee 5 95 Texas 14 92 Virginia 14 95 *Data from ABC News Exit polls. "--" indicates small sample size.
In the CBS-New York Times Virginia exit poll that year, nearly half of white voters expressed an unfavorable impression of Jackson. In Massachusetts, about a third had a negative view.
And in the Illinois primary, held a week after Super Tuesday, Jackson attracted 8 percent of white voters, but 91 percent of African Americans, according to the ABC exit poll. Jackson had fared no better among white voters in his adopted home state in 1984.