CHARLESTON, S.C. – Sen. Barack Obama, of Illinois, won the South Carolina primary in a landslide Saturday, attracting a biracial coalition and giving his candidacy a much-needed boost as the Democratic presidential race moves toward a 22-state showdown Feb. 5.
Obama trounced Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, of New York, in the first Southern primary of the 2008 campaign, with former Sen. John Edwards, of North Carolina, finishing third. After a bitter and racially charged campaign in which former President Bill Clinton became the center of controversy, Obama won with overwhelming support from African-Americans, but also attracted about a quarter of the white vote, according to exit polling.
Obama’s big victory margin means the battle for the Democratic nomination continues without a clear front-runner. Obama and Clinton have now split the first four contests of the campaign, and the candidates face the possibility of an extended conflict that aides in both campaigns said Saturday could stretch into March or even April.
Clinton currently leads in a number of the biggest states with contests on Feb. 5, including California and New York, and her campaign has predicted that she will emerge from the competition that day with a lead in convention delegates. Obama has set his sights on winning more states than Clinton on Feb. 5 and in preventing her from jumping into a big lead in the battle for delegates.
Clinton’s campaign had anticipated a loss in South Carolina and sought throughout the week to play down the significance of the vote here. But the size of Obama’s victory margin was far larger than her advisers or any pre-primary poll had anticipated, as Obama demonstrated an ability to energize his supporters on a day when turnout appeared likely to break the previous record for a Democratic primary.
Clinton left the state shortly after the polls closed and issued a written statement in which she congratulated Obama. But she signaled the fierce battle ahead by saying, “We now turn our attention to the millions of Americans who will make their voices heard in Florida and the twenty-two states as well as American Samoa who will vote on February 5th.”
“He won fair and square,” Bill Clinton told supporters in Missouri on Saturday night.
Edwards, who won South Carolina four years ago, appeared to capitalize on the bickering between the Clinton and Obama, winning nearly half of the white voters who made up their minds in the final three days. But after three consecutive third-place finishes, he now must decide whether continuing his candidacy will result in him becoming a potential power broker or a spoiler.
Black voters made up slightly more than half of the Democratic electorate on Saturday, and Obama won about four in five of their votes. Months earlier, he and Clinton were in a pitched battle for the support of black voters, with Clinton hoping to draw on her and her husband’s deep roots in the African-American community. But Obama quickly consolidated their support, and his superior organization provided an extra boost that paid off on voting day.
Clinton made a special effort to attract support from African-American women, but they were as strong in their support for Obama as were African-American men. Obama defeated Clinton among black women 4 to 1.
Edwards siphoned off a considerable portion of the white vote Saturday. Exit polls by the National Election Pool showed Edwards and Clinton each winning about four in 10 white voters, with Obama gaining the rest. But Edwards found virtually no support within the African-American community, with exit polls showing that he gained about 2 percent of the black vote.
The South Carolina campaign turned into the nastiest stage of the Democratic nomination battle so far. Clinton and Obama traded insults during a rancorous debate in Myrtle Beach on Monday night, and the two campaigns clashed repeatedly over whether the Clintons – and, in particular, the former president – were deliberately distorting some of Obama’s statements for political advantage.
The attacks raged through much of the week, until Clinton and Obama backed away from the brink on Thursday, but by then the damage was done. The results of the primary were “a sound rejection of the politics of attack and division by the voters of South Carolina,” David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, said shortly after the polls closed.
Clinton advisers held firm in their argument that it was the Obama campaign that had sought to undermine the former president, and predicted the battle in South Carolina would damage Obama going forward.
By 7:37 p.m., Clinton was in the air headed toward Nashville, her campaign’s eagerness to leave South Carolina barely disguised. Although her strategists took care not to publicly disparage the voters of South Carolina – as they had caucus-goers after losing Iowa weeks earlier – the private assessment from some supporters was that Obama had only won because of large minority turnout. The Obama campaign quickly refuted that argument, noting he had solid support in the white community, as well, and the argument seemed certain to roil the campaign further.
The Clinton team hopes to blunt some of Obama’s South Carolina momentum on Tuesday in Florida. That primary is not sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee and therefore will elect no delegates to the national convention.
But more Democrats are expected to vote in that contest than in any previous primary or caucuses, and Clinton’s campaign is seeking a public relations boost there.
Obama advisers believe that the size of his victory in South Carolina, after a spirited campaign among the three candidates, will count for more than a Florida contest in which the candidates have not actively campaigned because of the DNC sanctions.
The real battle will be the nearly two dozen states that vote on Feb. 5. Almost 1,700 delegates are at stake that day – slightly more than half of the pledged delegates to the Denver convention – and the two campaigns will throw enormous resources into the battle.
“Obama’s given himself another chance,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “The question is: How big a bounce does he get out of this? He’s going into Super Tuesday behind in a number of major states. … He gives himself a chance to get back in the game in a serious way.”