Sunday, January 27, 2008

Obama's Saturday night massacre

The term Saturday night massacre entered the political lexicon during the Watergate scandal, but maybe it now needs to be updated, in the wake of the brutal thrashing that Barack Obama has meted out to the Clintons in South Carolina.

We shall soon see whether Obama can captalize on his success. I am somewhat skeptical that he can. But his performance last night was indeed impressive. Where to begin:

1. This was the first slaughter of the Democratic primary season, a 2-1 victory margin, unless you count Hillary’s performance in the mid-January Michigan beauty contest, where she was the sole name on the ballot.

2. This was the first time that a Democrat (or a Republican, for that matter) has won more than 50 percent of the vote in any of the multi-candidate contests. And it was powered by black voters who abandoned their loyalties to the Clintons in order to deliver a stinging rebuke. (If Hillary wins the nomination, she had better hope that she can woo them back.)

3. Obama attracted more voters (295,000) than the total number of voters who turned out for the South Carolina Democratic primary four years ago (290,000) – a fresh indicator of his ability to stoke enthusiasm. And with respect to the top finishers in the state GOP contest one week ago, Obama garnered more votes than John McCain and Mike Huckabee combined (279,000).

4. Obama won every region of the state, every education level, and every income level. He finished first among married voters, and first among single voters. He was the top choice in the cities, suburbs, and small towns.

5. Obama was the top choice of independents (23 percent of the voters in this open primary were independents), thereby demonstrating, again, that he traffics effectively in the middle of the road – which is where presidential elections are determined. Hillary was the least popular choice, finishing behind John Edwards.

6. South Carolina’s voters rebuked Bill Clinton; clearly, they were not charmed by his descent from president emeritus to junkyard dog. Nearly six in 10 voters said that Bill’s loose lips were an important factor in their decision; of those voters, 48 percent broke for Obama, 37 percent for Hillary. And with respect to the voters who made up their minds during the final three days (when Bill was in especially high dudgeon), nearly half broke for Obama, and only 19 percent went with Hillary.

7. It’s beyond dispute that Obama owes his decisive victory to African-American voters; they comprised 55 percent of the primary electorate, and Obama won 78 percent of their votes. But Obama, pitted against two white candidates, did draw 24 percent of the white vote, and he dueled Hillary to virtual draw among white males. (Some pre-primary polls had suggested that Obama’s share of the white vote would be as low as 10 percent.)

8. Thanks to Obama's drawing power, the Democrats attracted 530,000 voters in South Carolina; last weekend, the Republicans, with a larger field of candidates, drew only 442,000. The enthusiasm gap, noted in previous states, continues.

No wonder the Clintons were so anxious last night to move on. Bill gave a pep talk (and talked and talked, mostly about himself) that barely mentioned South Carolina. He spoke instead about “a big victory for us in Florida in just a couple of days” (referring to the Tuesday night beauty contest, in which no delegates will be awarded, but where the Clintons hope to spin a symbolic win); and, more importantly, he talked up the big-state contests on Feb. 5 “when millions of Americans finally get into the act” (translation: South Carolina was chump change).

And the Clintons are smart to turn the page with all deliberate speed. Democratic voters in New York and New Jersey and California (among others) might not care a whit about what happened in South Carolina. With this accelerated calendar, a 10-day span seems like a lifetime. An ostensibly meaningless Clinton victory in Florida on Tuesday night would afford the spouses an opportunity to frame a new momentum narrative on the eve of Feb. 5. Reports indicate that 400,000 Florida Democrats (taking advantage of the state’s early-voting option) have already cast ballots, which means that the Sunshine State turnout will likely dwarf the South Carolina turnout, and (assuming a Hillary victory) give the Clintons symbolic bragging rights in a big, diverse state.

Moreover, black voters won’t dominate the turnout in New York, New Jersey, and California – the big states that will get the lion’s share of the publicity on Feb. 5. The Clintons and their surrogates have been trying to label Obama as merely the “black candidate” – Bill did it again yesterday, by comparing Obama to Jesse Jackson - and they’ll probably look for ways to spin the South Carolina results as further proof. (They’ll try to be subtle about it, of course, and then they’ll blame the media for reporting it.)

For instance, in California, more Latinos than blacks are expected to vote in the Feb. 5 primary, and the Latino mayor of Los Angeles is working the streets for Hillary. Fairly or not, Latino voters have been traditionally averse to supporting black political candidates. We’ll hear more about this phenomenon in the days ahead. Obama fared poorly among Latino voters in Nevada last week; Latinos were not a factor in South Carolina. It was no accident that Obama, in his victory speech last night, mentioned how he had stood up for his “Latino brothers and sisters” when he was a community organizer in Chicago.

Nor was it an accident last night that a few dozen white supporters were positioned behind Obama as he spoke. His future hinges on whether he can build on his decisive South Carolina victory and sell himself as the candidate of diversity – and whether he can successfully frame this historic contest on his own terms. He argued last night that, rather than being about race versus gender, “it is about the past versus the future.”

In that sense, he is challenging Democratic primary voters, regardless of race or gender, to make an historic decision of their own. In the weeks ahead, they have to decide for themselves whether fealty to the Clintons (and their hardball brand of politics) is still the operative impulse. Tribal loyalties die hard, however, and while many Democrats are clearly afflicted with Clinton fatigue, there is still a sense, among many others, that the hardball tactics now being directed at Obama would stand the party in good stead when redirected this autumn against the Republicans.


UPDATE: Reliable reports are circulating that liberal lion Ted Kennedy will endorse Obama on Monday. If so, that will be the second stinging rebuke of the Clintons in less than 48 hours.