Winning and losing primaries is not a clear-cut, black-and-white issue. A candidate can essentially win by coming in second as long as he defies expectations. Conversely, if a candidate is unable to attract enough of a key group of voters, he can be judged to lose a race even if his name is tops in the final vote count. The latter is the troubling situation Barack Obama could find himself in at the end of the day. Polls and pundits agree that Obama is likely to win South Carolina, but he very well could do so almost exclusively with the help of his base of black voters.
And for a candidate who has staked his bid on his ability to transcend all sorts of divides, most notably race, that is not an encouraging sign. Winning anything less than a significant percentage of the white vote could leave Obama vulnerable to being boxed in as the “black” candidate, unable to appeal to Southern whites who may help decide the general election in the fall. When asked about this, Obama spokesman Josh Earnest doesn’t exactly hide his annoyance: “I have no doubt that the Clinton campaign is going to make that argument,” he said. By way of rebuttal, Earnest points to Obama’s mixed audiences all week along. “There’re very diverse crowds. In some paces there are large black audiences, yeah, and in some places there are large white audiences.”
Obama consistently lags behind rivals Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in polls of South Carolina white voters. Some surveys this week have him winning as much as 23%, others have him garnering just 10%. There is no magic number that determines whether Obama has won or lost this constituency, and likely he will be at the mercy of the spin doctors and the media to who will all weigh in.
Of course, it’s not as if Obama hasn’t yet proven he can garner a large share of the white vote; Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada are all a powerful counterpoint to the concerns about South Carolina — though clearly the all important south has a very different racial history than those other regions. Playing the race card would also have its perils for the Clinton campaign. “It is possible that if Obama gets trounced among white voters that the other campaigns have the opportunity to portray his victory in South Carolina as something difficult to replicate,” said Charles J. Finocchiaro, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina. “That said, there are a number of other southern states with large African American populations and upcoming primaries. Alienating or sowing disenchantment with a core base of the party seems like a dangerous strategy for the long-term.”
The campaign also says that they could have a surprisingly strong showing of Republicans and Independents today since the primary is open. “There was a relatively low turn out in the Republican primary last week and Independents and Republicans are not bring polled,” said former south Carolina Governor Jim Hodges, who has endorsed Obama. “It will be something to watch tomorrow.”
Indeed, Obama has based his entire February 5th strategy on winning purple and red areas across the country where Clinton is too polarizing a figure. If few Republicans and Independents show up for him in South Carolina, it won’t bode well for Super Tuesday, where Obama is betting on the fact that 15 of the 22 contests are open to members of other parties. “If you look at the contests so far, Hillary is winning only in blue areas,” said Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, who has endorsed Obama. “And if you look where are the places that Barack is doing well, it’s those crucial purple areas where we did so well in 2006. And in places like New Mexico, Arizona , Colorado, Missouri, that’s where Barack will do well on Super Tuesday.” In other words, to truly win South Carolina, Obama needs not only to cross racial divides, but party lines as well.