In recent weeks I’ve displayed an embarrassing penchant for trying to predict the outcome of primaries and caucuses the night before the polls (or smoke filled rooms) open for business. I held off on the South Carolina Democratic primary, but if I had tried to call it, even on my most optimistic day I’d never have come close to the actual results.
The polls as of the day before the primary had Obama leading Clinton by a reasonable margin of about 11 points, not surprising in a state with one of the largest black populations in the nation. In the last few days Hillary’s Surrogate in Chief had been using all his charm as the ‘first black president’ to scare the bejesus out of white voters so they’d flee to the welcoming arms of Mama Hilly. All things considered a 10-12 point loss for Clinton in South Carolina would have been acceptable.
What the Clinton campaign couldn’t have expected and likely can’t afford is the stunning 28 point thrashing Obama handed Hillary on Saturday. The final vote count broked down 55% for Obama, 27% for Clinton and 18% for Edwards. The pundits and experts are going to be trying to figure it out while the spin doctors try to explan it away at least until the vote in Florida next week.
That’s bad news for Hillary Clinton, but the exit polls probably have her throwing the crockery around the mansion. Obama beat Hillary among men 54% to 23%, but he also beat her soundly among her own gender 54% to 30%. Of course he crushed her among black voters, but what has to have her tearing her hair is that he also won the 18-29 year old white vote by a margin of almost 2 to 1, and she lost to John Edwards among all other white voters. The idea of an Edwards endorsement for Obama or an Obama/Edwards ticket has to be keeping her up at nights.
Obama also dominated the vote in virtually every other category. He massively outscored Clinton by roughly similar amounts in every educational group and every income group. He beat her on every issue including health care. He beat her by a substantial margin among the few Republican crossover voters and among those who identified themselves as conservative by almost as large a margin as he beat her among independents and liberals. He won the urban vote, he won the rural vote, he won the last minute voters and he won those who had decided well in advance. In all of these cases he won by a margin similar to the vote in the overall population.
The one group where Clinton did significantly better than Obama was among white women, who in South Carolina make up only about 20% of those who voted. Obama more or less tied Clinton in support from white men.
Bill Clinton, who many have speculated has taken over as his wife’s chief strategist, doesn’t get off easy in the exit polls either. When asked if Bill Clinton’s campaigning for Hillary was an important factor in how they voted, 75% of Clinton voters said it was at least somewhat important while 94% of Obama voters said it was somewhat important. That makes it pretty clear that Clinton alienated far more voters than he won for Hillary. The exit polls agree with 70%, saying that Clinton attacked Obama unfairly, so it looks very much like Bill Clinton’s strategy of attacking hard and subtly flirting with racial politics backfired badly. Clinton’s tactics were supposed to drive white voters to Hillary and polls showed only 10 % of whites voting for Obama right before the vote, but when it came to the actual results, Edwards won the white vote and Hillary got only 14% among whites.
Now, South Carolina is by no means a typical state. It does have the second most delegates of any state to hold a caucus or a primary so far, but it’s small compared to some of the states voting in the next few weeks, has virtually no hispanic population and has more than double the black population of the average state. But it’s still a majority white state and Obama won the white vote by almost as much as he won the general vote, plus it’s a southern state and he’s a northerner.
The Clinton campaign may be banking on the Hispanic population to make up the ground they are losing to Obama among whites, but it may be a weak reed for her to hold onto. Not only are Hispanics only about 12% of the voting population because they register in smaller numbers than blacks do, they have increasingly moved towards voting Republican both in primaries and in the general election. In 2000 35% of Hispanics voted Repulbican. In 2004 45% voted Republican and this year it may well be more than 50%. So Clinton may be banking on Hispanic Democrats who just may not exist, at least not in the numbers she needs.
It’s certainly still too early to poke Hillary with a fork and declare her done, but the momentum certainly seems to have abandonned her and her campaign appears to be foundering. She does still have the support of a lot of party bosses, and the way the Democratic primary is structured that means a large portion of the insanely bloated body of over 750 ‘superdelegate’ party insiders will go to her. But right now Obama is trailing by only 78 delegates out of over 4000, and if the polls – which have been so incredibly unreliable this year – continue to be off by margins in the double digits, all of the big ‘Super Tuesday’ states which Clinton has a lead in may actually be up for grabs.