Previewing South Carolina

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Here are excerpts from a preview of South Carolina's Democratic primary I wrote for our cousin publication, National Journal.

Before an important press conference last week, staffers at the South Carolina Democratic Party's headquarters here decided to decorate a conference room with the yard signs of its leading presidential candidates. The party serves as a neutral repository for campaign information, and visitors can choose from a variety of campaign literature, bumper stickers, and postcards boosting Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Edwards, or Dennis Kucinich. But there was a problem: They had run out of everything that said "Obama."

A call to Barack Obama's state headquarters provided only a partial fix: The campaign said it was running out of material, too, and could only spare a couple of yard signs. So a party volunteer was dispatched to fetch the precious commodity. Just moments before reporters would have noticed their absence, Obama signs were taped to the wall.

In South Carolina, as in Iowa, the Obama campaign has out-hustled, out-innovated, and outorganized its competition. Days before the Palmetto State's January 26 primary, his rivals had all but ceded the state to him. Obama is now spending the bulk of his time in South Carolina. Clinton, meanwhile, spent several days last week campaigning in other states. And Edwards's state director lowered expectations to the floor, saying he is confident that Edwards will get more than 15 percent of the vote in some congressional districts -- reaching the viability threshold for delegates, in other words.
Obama overcame Clinton's advantages through innovation and grassroots participation. "They have a more active, broader grassroots network than anyone else out there," Wexler said.


As in Iowa, Obama's campaign organized heavily at colleges throughout the state. His new-media team set up a program to allow people attending Obama rallies to text-message a code to the campaign, giving it reams of free data about voters who had taken the time to attend a rally and participate in the technological experiment. When Obama's pollsters found that older African-American women in the coastal Pee Dee region in the northeastern corner of the state often asked in these sessions whether Obama was really a Muslim, the campaign immediately cut radio ads to emphasize Obama's Christianity. To calm the fears of older black voters who worried that whites wouldn't vote for a black candidate, the campaign worked what it calls the "B&B" circuit -- barbershops and beauty salons where customers and hair stylists talk politics -- and showed them videos of Michelle Obama explaining that she, too, had doubts about her husband's electability but overcame them.


Flush with volunteers, the Obama campaign gave them direct access to the state party's online voter file to update lists of confirmed supporters. Jay Parmley, the party's voter file director, said that Obama's workers created 820 separate logins compared with the fewer than 300 by the Clinton campaign.


Heading into the primary, Obama is in the catbird seat. "When you look at this primary, what's happening is similar to the coalition that came together in a number of our major cities when the first black mayor was elected," Clemson University political scientist Bruce Ransom said. "The candidate depended on a large black turnout and picked up the 25 percent to 35 percent [of whites] who happened to be more liberal."


In Iowa, where there are few black voters, Obama won by devoting enormous amounts of resources to turning out young voters, upper-middle-class voters, professionals, men of all income levels, and self-described liberals. In New Hampshire, Clinton amped up turnout among working-class white women and beat Obama's coalition, which resembled the one he fashioned in Iowa. (Obama outpolled Clinton by 12 percentage points among New Hampshire Democrats with post-graduate degrees; they account for a whopping 23 percent of the electorate there.) In Nevada, Clinton again won working-class women, Hispanics, older voters, and hard-core Democrats; Obama had more support among younger Democrats and African-Americans.


In 2004, Edwards built a winning South Carolina coalition of union voters, a large share of the black vote, and whites at all income and education levels. This time, with Clinton leading among whites and Obama having secured three-fourths of the black vote, Edwards is a candidate without a base. He is left with white working-class voters, who are expected to be no more than one-quarter of the primary electorate.


No longer is it possible in South Carolina to put together a Democratic majority based on white working-class voters and a minority of African-Americans, as Democrat Ernest Hollings did in his winning Senate campaigns. "The folks who would have voted for John Edwards 12 years ago are now voting for [Republican] Mike Huckabee," said Adam Temple, a Republican strategist from Charleston.
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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