Let's do some thinking about the Democratic race in South Carolina (primary: Jan. 26; current polling here). Considering the Democratic electorate there is roughly 50% white and 50% black, Obama ought to have a huge advantage. But his main opposition is the wife of America's first black president—the Clinton's have very strong ties to many parts of the black community—and the polls show a close race.
The easiest observation is this: Edwards continued presence in the race divides the white vote, making things easier for Obama.
But here's a more interesting hypothesis: South Carolina may prove Obama's viability more generally. Here's why. Obama is considered a "wine-track" candidate. He appeals to upper-class, well-educated voters. Professors love him. So do college kids on Facebook. He isn't a "beer-track" candidate, someone who appeals to working- and middle-class voters. Usually, beer-trackers get the support of traditional Democratic constituencies like labor. Here's a better explanation:
Since the 1960s, Democratic nominating contests regularly have come down to a struggle between a candidate who draws support primarily from upscale, economically comfortable voters liberal on social and foreign policy issues, and a rival who relies mostly on downscale, financially strained voters drawn to populist economics and somewhat more conservative views on cultural and national security issues.
It's not much of an oversimplification to say that the blue-collar Democrats tend to see elections as an arena for defending their interests, and the upscale voters see them as an opportunity to affirm their values.
Thing is, wine-trackers don't win. Adlai Stevenson, Eugene McCarthy, Gary Hart, Bill Bradley, John Kerry (Bradley and Kerry have endorsed Obama)... they've all lost in either the primary or the general.
But Obama might rewrite the equation. If you take the wine-track voters (who looove the fact that Obama has written books, for example), but you add an unprecendent number of young and independent voters, and you add a hefty share of black voters to that, now you've got a coalition that can beat the working class block that traditionally sides with the establishment candidate.
Two other notes, re: Kerry and Richardson, after the jump.