South Carolina’s Lasting Impact

The true legacy of this election cycle’s South Carolina slimefest remains to be seen.

In 2000, John McCain faced a do-or-die contest in South Carolina and got slashed by allegations that he had fathered an illegitimate black child and abandoned his fellow POWs in Vietnam. McCain lost in South Carolina by 11 points and his campaign never recovered.

This time around, the mudslinging occurred on the Democratic side. Clinton attacked Obama for supporting the policies of Ronald Reagan, a false claim, and many Clinton surrogates found ways to mention Obama’s religion or past drug use. And Bill Clinton called Obama’s record on Iraq a fairy tale, compared him to Jesse Jackson, and repeatedly brought up race, all while chastising the press for trivializing the campaign. Obama was baited into responding with his own nasty ads.

The result, even the Clinton campaign admits, is that the candidate who was once transcendent and post-racial is now very clearly “the black candidate.” That may serve Obama well in a Southern state like South Carolina, where half the Democratic electorate is African-American, but it will take off some of his sheen in the eyes of white voters across the country. And that’s why South Carolina’s role in this campaign will not end until the February 5 primaries (and possibly even later ones) are decided. If Obama loses even a small share of the white vote in those states, he will struggle mightily to beat Clinton.

So how did Obama win tonight? As he said in his victory speech in Columbia, he had a “diverse coalition.” According to exit polls, he took 80 percent of the black vote, but also 24 percent of the white vote (polls leading up to the election said he would win just 10 percent). He won big amongst voters under 30, but actually won every age group except the over-65ers. He won amongst the one-fourth of voters who identified as independents, but he also won big amongst the three-fourth who identified as Democrats. Fifty percent of voters said they attend church once a week or more: Obama more than doubled Clinton’s support in that block.

And regardless of type and subtype, Obama brought people out. He won more votes today by himself than were cast in the entire 2004 Democratic primary. He won more votes by himself than Huckabee and McCain won together one week ago in South Carolina’s Republican primary.

The Clintons may well have sacrificed this state in order to better their chances of winning elsewhere. Roughly 40 percent of voters said they made up their mind in the last week. Half of those people went for Obama, and one-third went for Edwards. Few went for Clinton. Those who said they factored Bill Clinton’s campaigning into their decision went for Obama instead of Clinton. Seventy percent of voters thought the Clinton campaign attacked Obama unfairly. In short, people hated the negative campaigning in recent days. The Clintons, consciously or by chance, used South Carolina to color Obama as the “black candidate” in the eyes of voters across the country. And if that meant South Carolinians were disgusted by the way they did it, so be it.