January 28, 2008 in Opinion

Michael Barone: S.C. primary unusually indecisive

Michael Barone Creators Syndicate
 

South Carolina: In 1988, 1992, 1996 and 2000, it was the state that, with its early primary, determined the winner of the Republican nomination for president. It gave George H.W. Bush the nomination over Bob Dole, determined that he would not be upset by Pat Buchanan, delivered for Dole over Buchanan and gave George W. Bush a decisive victory over John McCain.

This year, South Carolina was not decisive in the same way. Its Republicans gave John McCain a 33 percent to 30 percent victory over Mike Huckabee Jan. 19, and Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton by a decisive margin on Saturday.

Neither result, at least at this time, seems likely to determine the nomination. Mitt Romney and, depending on his showing in Florida on Tuesday, Rudy Giuliani appear capable of beating McCain. Clinton’s numbers in Florida and the Feb. 5 primary states look much stronger than her numbers in South Carolina. And, just to take no chances, she seems poised to defy the Democratic Party’s ban on campaigning in Florida (because it scheduled its primary earlier than allowed under party rules).

But both South Carolina results seem likely to reshape the two parties’ contests – and perhaps to change the balance of strength between the two parties and reduce what has been a major advantage for the Democrats.

For the Republicans, Huckabee’s defeat in South Carolina seems to remove him as a major contender. He has won many votes from evangelical and born-again Christians, but except in the Iowa caucuses, he has not won big majorities in the group and has won only about 10 percent of the votes of other Republicans.

He doesn’t have the money to run much in the way of ads in Florida. This means we’re unlikely to see a confrontation between Huckabee and one other candidate, between someone closely identified with evangelicals and one who is not. The result: The winner of the primary will not be seen as having disrespected a core constituency of the party.

Democrats face a dissimilar prospect. John Edwards, who won 4 percent of the delegate vote in Nevada, is effectively out of the race, whether he keeps delivering his “two Americas” speech or not. That pits Hillary Clinton against an African-American candidate, and her surrogates – Black Entertainment Television head Bob Johnson, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, former President Bill Clinton – have been delivering harsh attacks on Obama with racially loaded language.

The Nevada caucus, the first contest with large minority participation, revealed sharp differences between groups that Democrats regard as core constituencies. The entrance poll showed Obama carrying black caucus-goers 83 percent to 14 percent, while Clinton carried Latinos 64 percent to 26 percent and Jews 67 percent to 25 percent.

Polls in South Carolina, where blacks will make up about 50 percent of primary voters, have him carrying blacks by wide margins – the reason everyone assumes he will win there. But Florida and several Feb. 5 states have smaller percentages of blacks and larger percentages of Latinos and Jews. The 2004 Democratic primary voters in California, the nation’s largest state, were 8 percent black and 16 percent Hispanic. I haven’t found the Jewish percentage, but it’s probably at least 5 percent.

Nationally, Rasmussen’s post-Nevada daily tracking shows Obama leading among blacks 62 percent to 19 percent and Clinton leading among whites 43 percent to 23 percent. That looks like a sharper racial polarization than we saw before the round of caucuses and primaries began. It raises the possibility that Hillary Clinton may win the Democratic nomination by visibly disrespecting a core constituency of the party. And that could spell trouble, in the form of low black turnout, in the general election.

South Carolina, whose early primary was engineered by the late Lee Atwater, and which gave the Republican nominations to the two Presidents Bush, doesn’t seem likely to determine either party’s nominee this year, but may have done a lot to shape the fall campaign.


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