Saturday, January 26, 2008

Pre-Spinning South Carolina

I'm not going to quote polls because they've proven unreliable in the recent past, but they do affect expectations. Barack Obama is expected to win the South Carolina primary today. But what will he win? It depends in part on perception.

Clearly if Obama doesn't win, it hurts him greatly going into Tsuami Tuesday. But if people are buying Bill Clinton's latest pre-spin--and some of the media clearly are--then the margin of his victory doesn't matter as much as the percentage of the white vote he gets. In past primaries and caucuses, where the proportion of black voters in the state was lower, he got 35-37%. How will his percentage in South Carolina be judged? Now that it's officially a three-person contest, what percentage will signal that he can win enough white votes to not be ghettoized as the black candidate?

In this article, political scientists disagree on what the proportions will mean. At least one believes the Clintons are counting on marginalizing Obama as the black candidate: "There is a substantial residual of race-related fear, and President Clinton's frequent invocation of race/gender differences is tapping into it. Iowa and New Hampshire did not have the demographics to tempt Obama's opponents to play to racial identity, but from here on the demographics for this style of campaigning are very seductive. I look for continued hints, then denials and high road talk, then hints, etc."

The South Carolina results may answer a couple of race-related questions: how much do black voters believe that the Clintons are playing the race card, and how much do they resent it? And given Obama's race-neutral campaign, will white Democrats erase this issue by voting for Obama in at least the same percentage they did elsewhere?

Some polls show John Edwards (who won this primary in 2004) surging, largely from white voters, although some polls suggest he is taking votes from Obama, and others from Clinton. There's even the suggestion that if the Edwards surge continued Friday, that he could come in second, which would be a major embarrassment for Hillary (assuming she doesn't come in first.)

Another element to watch for is the extent of the turnout, which South Carolina Democrats believe will be record-breaking. That adds even more uncertainty to the outcomes.

Obama did a couple of smart things in the last few days of the campaign: he concentrated more on women voters, and he talked economics. There's always a bit of a lag between what gets reported locally or statewide and what gets reported nationally, especially when everybody is so focused on Bill Clinton. But if Obama got through to voters, he could be sealing the deal with undecideds.

At this point I'm way too not objective to be confident in what I'm sensing at this distance. All I can say is I'm "hoping" for a big--a really big--Obama victory.

That would mean that Obama and Hillary would go into Tsunami Tuesday more equally matched, with Hillary's recent momentum blunted. As was discussed on Keith Friday, the math is such that no candidate is going to come out of TT's round of primaries with enough delegates to claim the nomination. But the expectations game could mean the momentum game again. But first things first: South Carolina Democrats vote today.

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