A Margin That Will Be Hard To Marginalize

The Post's Shailagh Murray discusses Barack Obama's victory in the South Carolina Democratic Primary and what his campaign is expected to do next.
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 27, 2008

Across South Carolina last week, African American voters came in droves to see Sen. Barack Obama. They came, they said in interviews, not just for a glimpse of the first black candidate with a serious chance at winning the White House but because they were drawn by his message of bringing Americans of all backgrounds together.

"He speaks of things that touch the heart of everyday people. We all collectively as a society have to hold onto our hope together," said Beverly Newsome, a teacher in North Charleston. "How else are we going to make it if we don't join together to create a better society for everyone?"

Obama rode this surge of excitement for all it was worth, badly needing a big win after losses in New Hampshire and Nevada. In crowded high school gyms in impoverished towns, the senator from Illinois made few direct mentions of the historic nature of his candidacy but subtly encouraged voters not to give in to self-doubt. ("Don't let people make you afraid," he said in Kingstree.) He emphasized themes of interest to black voters -- his church-going, the high numbers of young blacks in prison. And he built a rapport with his jubilant, boisterous audiences unlike anything he had enjoyed elsewhere, parrying shouted remarks from the crowd and dropping into the vernacular with just enough irony to avoid accusations of pandering.

"I need your Cousin Pookie to vote!" he'd say with a smile, in a plea for a big turnout.

Voters loved it. After a rally in Kingstree on Thursday, Harrison McKnight, the county coroner, said the only thing that came close to it was when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited the town for a speech at the high school football field in 1966. "It's wonderful. It's something new that wasn't here before," McKnight said.

There was an irony in this: By attracting African Americans with his message of unity, Obama was at risk of allowing the opposition to cast him in narrower terms than he would like.

The campaign of his chief opponent, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), was preparing to discount an Obama victory in South Carolina as the predictable result of black voters' support for a fellow African American. In Charleston last week, Bill Clinton said, "They are getting votes, to be sure, because of their race or gender, and that's why people tell me that Hillary doesn't have a chance of winning here." Yesterday, he noted that Jesse Jackson had twice won the state's Democratic primary.

And pre-election polls showing a drop in support for Obama among white voters in South Carolina, alongside a surge in black support, threatened to undercut one of his main themes: that he can transcend the nation's divisions.

With yesterday's resounding victory, Obama may have dodged that threat, emerging from a hard-fought primary with his message of conciliation and his strategy of cross-demographic appeal intact, even as he faces considerable challenges leading up to the crush of 22 states voting a week from Tuesday. He won with 55 percent of the vote, double Clinton's share, and was carried by overwhelming support from black voters, who made up more than half of the electorate and voted for Obama 4 to 1 over Clinton, according to exit polls.

He received proportionately far less support from white voters -- about a quarter voted for him, with the remainder splitting about evenly between Clinton and former senator John Edwards (N.C.). Yet Obama's support among whites was higher than had been predicted by several polls last week -- he won nearly as many white men as Clinton -- allowing his campaign to argue that his message of national conciliation had a broader reach than many expected in a state with a complex racial history.

"Race doesn't matter!" the crowd at Obama's victory celebration in Columbia chanted last night, and when he spoke, the senator elaborated on the theme. He said his victory disproved those who argue that people "think, act and even vote within the categories that supposedly define us" -- that blacks will not vote for a white candidate and vice versa.

"I did not travel around this state and see a white South Carolina or a black South Carolina. I saw South Carolina," he said. The election, he said, "is not about rich versus poor or young versus old, and it's not about black versus white. This election is about the past versus the future."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company