Obama wins S.C. by wide margin

Turnout by black voters fuels primary victory

Email|Print| Text size + By Scott Helman and Marcella Bombardieri
Globe Staff / January 27, 2008

COLUMBIA, S.C. - Senator Barack Obama scored an overwhelming victory yesterday in South Carolina's Democratic primary, injecting needed momentum into his campaign and capping a bitter contest here with Senator Hillary Clinton that touched on race, honesty, and the proper role of a former president in the election.

In the party's first Southern primary, Obama crushed Clinton, 55 percent to 27 percent, racking up enormous margins among black voters, who accounted for more than half of Democrats casting ballots, according to exit polling data. Obama beat Clinton among African-Americans 80 percent to 18 percent. But he also won enough support from white voters to notch a commanding, broad-based victory.

Addressing elated supporters in downtown Columbia last night, Obama cast his win as a repudiation of divisive, race-based politics.

"I saw what America is, and I believe in what this country can be," Obama said as supporters chanted "race doesn't matter!" "That is the country I see. That is the country you see. But now it is up to us to help the entire nation embrace this vision."

He continued, "The choice in this election is not between regions or religions or genders. It's not about rich versus poor, young versus old, and it is not about black versus white. This election is about the past versus the future."

Turnout yesterday, fueled by intense interest in the race and a sunny day at the polls, was massive: More than 530,000 voters cast ballots - a huge jump from 2004, when 290,000 people voted. That mirrored the dramatic increases in turnout in the Democratic contests to date.

Clinton left South Carolina yesterday evening for Tennessee, and she addressed supporters last night in Nashville with barely a mention of Obama's victory.

"I want to tell you how excited I am that now the eyes of the country turn to Tennessee and the other states that will be voting on Feb. 5," Clinton said. "Millions and millions of Americans are going to have the chance to have their voices heard and their votes counted."

Former senator John Edwards finished third last night with 18 percent, another disappointing defeat, this time in the state where he was born. But he vowed to remain in the race.

Obama's unexpectedly one-sided triumph sets the stage for a high-stakes showdown between him and Clinton on Feb. 5, when 22 states hold Democratic primaries or caucuses. Most analysts believed Obama had to win South Carolina to gain enough strength heading into Feb. 5. After Obama won the Iowa caucuses Jan. 3, Clinton bounced back to win New Hampshire and the popular vote in Nevada, putting the onus on Obama to halt her momentum.

From here, the Democratic race turns more complex. With the four early voting states behind them, Obama, Clinton, and Edwards now fan out across the country to vie for support in states as disparate as California, New Jersey, and Alabama.

"Now the three of us move on to Feb. 5, where millions of Americans will cast their vote and help shape the future of this party and help shape the future of America," Edwards told supporters in Columbia.

Obama today picks up an important symbolic endorsement in Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of former president John F. Kennedy, an inspirational leader to whom Obama is often compared.

In an op-ed in today's New York Times called "A president like my father," Kennedy writes, "I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them. But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president not just for me, but for a new generation of Americans."

With Obama the most viable black candidate ever to run for president, South Carolina became the first crucial test of how the country's African-American voters would respond. Obama's candidacy excited black South Carolinians, but many had been skeptical that he could win the nomination. And Clinton, thanks in part to her husband, former president Bill Clinton, enjoyed deep support in black communities.

But the equation changed after Obama won Iowa, proving to African-Americans that he could win in white regions, too. And it shifted further after an uproar among some black leaders about Hillary Clinton's recent remarks seeming to downplay the civil rights accomplishments of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Polls leading up to yesterday's vote showed Obama beating Clinton handily among black voters.

The question as polls closed was twofold: whether that margin would hold on primary day, and whether Obama's increasing appeal among black voters would come at the expense of support from whites, who had said in surveys that they preferred Clinton and Edwards.

Obama answered last night: Far more blacks turned out than in 2004, and Obama's margin of victory among blacks was far higher than polls had anticipated.

Obama beat Clinton among African-American women by 60 percentage points, exit polling data showed. But Obama also won one-quarter of white voters and nearly tied Clinton among white men. Clinton performed best among white women, winning 44 percent to Edwards's 34 percent and Obama's 22 percent.

Exit polling data indicated that voters yesterday were far more concerned about the economy than healthcare or Iraq, and that they voted more on issues and the candidates' characters than on electability.

The week leading up to the primary was charged, beginning with a tense debate Monday night in Myrtle Beach, at which Clinton and Obama fiercely challenged each other's records and rhetoric. Clinton attacked Obama over recent comments he had made about Ronald Reagan.

Bill Clinton delivered a harsh critique of Obama's stance that he has always opposed the Iraq war. And Obama accused the Clintons of saying anything to win an election.

"When I was 20 points down, I was a fine young man. The Clintons couldn't say enough nice things about me," Obama told a gym full of supporters Thursday night at a high school in North Charleston. "Suddenly you win Iowa, and boy, the knives come out."

The knives from Bill Clinton got so sharp that prominent Democrats called on him to tone down his attacks, arguing that it was hurting the party.

In his victory speech last night, Obama implicitly chided the Clintons for their tactics, saying, "We're up against decades of bitter partisanship that cause politicians to demonize their opponents. . . . It's the kind of partisanship where you're not even allowed to say that a Republican had an idea - even if it's one you never agreed with."

Exit polls showed that many voters weighed Bill Clinton's involvement in the South Carolina campaign heavily, but it was unclear how much his criticism of Obama cost his wife votes.

When CNN showed Bill Clinton speaking at an event last night in Independence, Mo., loud boos went up at Obama headquarters.

"He won fair and square," Bill Clinton said of Obama. "We went there and asked the people to vote for us. They voted for him, we congratulate him. Now we go to Feb. 5 when millions of Americans finally get in the act."

The two rivals' pitches to voters in South Carolina - on the airwaves and during appearances at black colleges, barbecue joints, high schools, delis, community centers, and a rally commemorating King's birthday - largely mirrored the arguments they have made throughout the campaign: Obama said Clinton was too Washington, while Clinton said Obama was too green.

Like her rivals, Clinton pledged not to campaign in Florida after the Democratic Party punished the state for moving up its primary date by stripping it of any delegates to the Democratic National Convention. But she continues to suggest that Tuesday's vote in Florida, where she enjoys a healthy lead, does matter.

For now, Obama supporters want to just savor the massive victory.

Taariq Mohammed drove down from Charlotte, N.C., even though it was his son's second birthday, so he could witness Obama's celebration in Columbia.

"I feel lucky that I'm a part of history," said Mohammed, a 30-year-old operations manager at a construction company. "This is just amazing, to see a landslide victory. It shows you how much people really want a change, even in the South."

Lisa Wangsness of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Scott Helman can be reached at

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