The chaotic race for the Democratic presidential nomination is about to become much clearer after the South Carolina Democratic primary on January 26. After numerous plot twists, jabs, and dodges, pundits and politicos everywhere will finally be able to ascertain the scope of the damage inflicted by Hillary Clinton on Barack Obama. Obama clearly has the most to lose in South Carolina. In this piece, I will assume the role of both pundit and journalist and address the three most probable electoral and media outcomes associated with an Obama victory:
1. Barack Obama wins South Carolina! Black vote critical to Obama’s success! Short of losing South Carolina outright, this would be the worst possible outcome for the Obama campaign. Such a media storyline would wound Obama because it would mean that Clinton has succeeded at least at some level in transforming Obama from “a unity candidate who happens to be black” into “a black candidate.” Clinton can’t beat the former because that candidate has mass appeal that transcends race, gender, and ideology. She can, however, beat the latter candidate because the moment Barack Obama is seen as another Jesse Jackson, his support among white voters will plummet and Obama will come to be regarded as another marginalized leader of a particular interest group that she will not have to work hard to placate because she knows that interest group will not vote Republican.
Obama would then enter Super Tuesday with blunted momentum. He would likely score narrow victories in the southern states while Clinton would score more convincing victories in the states that have smaller black populations. The media may continue to run with the race angle and attribute his subsequent victories to race, which would further delegitimize his candidacy. Because this is a very real possibility, it would behoove Obama to do everything in his power to run like Obama ’08, rather than Jackson ’88. This whole scenario would mean that even though Obama had won the battle (South Carolina), Clinton would win the war (the nomination).
2. Barack Obama wins South Carolina! Margin of victory is smaller than expected! Even if the press decides not to revive, revisit, or prolong the racial angle of this race for the nomination, there is no doubt that a lot of voters might examine these results through that very prism regardless. And for those who do not, there is the added risk that the perception of Obamamania is weakening. Obama followed his stunning victory in the Iowa caucuses with a come-from-behind loss in New Hampshire and “a victory in delegates only” in Nevada. (Of course, the average voter does not care about delegates, nor does he know why they exist.) The point is, a win followed by two losses and an unimpressive win would make Obama’s supporters nervous and would prompt the media (which is always looking for a good storyline) to speculate on “Obama’s fall from grace.” (Some have already speculated on this, as this piece by Gabor Steingart illustrates.)
Fortunately, there are not many candidates left for the Democrats to choose from (unless they rediscover Dennis Kucinich or Mike Gravel, or John Edwards somehow catches fire) and Obama’s supporters likely view Clinton as a last resort, so perhaps his supporters would remain with him, even if they are only lukewarm about doing so. This is the Obama ’08 becomes Dean ’04 scenario, absent the career-ending scream.
3. Barack Obama wins South Carolina! Draws equal support from blacks and whites! This would obviously be the best storyline for the Obama campaign coming out of the South Carolina primary. Such a victory and ensuing storyline would accomplish two things: 1) it would remind voters nationwide of Obama’s appeal among all types of voters, and 2) it would show that Clinton’s use of the race card (often through her surrogates) either had been ignored by the voters or had backfired on her at the polls.
A “clean” victory attributed to his own political acumen (rather than his race) would make Obama even money against Clinton on Super Tuesday. He would have tremendous momentum and the buzz about his candidacy would reach the same fever pitch that had the Clinton campaign at Defcon three when the New Hampshire polls opened. Obama would win the southern Super Tuesday states with ease and would be free to contest the megastates of California and New York. This is where Obama’s donor base could really show its muscle, as he has relied on smaller contributions from far more donors than Clinton, who has relied on $2,300 checks from a much smaller circle. Put another way, Obama is not in danger of having his donors be “tapped out.” Winning South Carolina with broad support among all types of voters would immediately shift this risk to Clinton. This is the only true victory scenario for the Obama campaign and is likely the one victory he needs in order to make it to the general election this fall.
Anthony Palmer teaches English as a second language and is currently a doctoral student at the University of South Carolina studying journalism with a concentration in political communication. He blogs at The 7-10.