South Carolina Reshapes the Races

McCain and Obama are on the rise, but there's plenty of competition ahead.

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In my Creators Syndicate column, written before the South Carolina Democratic primary Saturday, I made the point that South Carolina, which more than any other state determined the Republican nomination in 1988, 1992, 1996, and 2000, would not be outcome-determinative but would reshape both the Democratic and Republican races this year. Now, a day before the Florida primary, that seems to be the case.

The Republicans. John McCain's narrow 33 to 30 percent victory over Mike Huckabee in South Carolina on January 19 put McCain in a strong position to win the nomination and meant that Huckabee's failure to win it would not be seen as the repudiation of a front-running candidate personifying a large core constituency of the party. That seems to be the case now. Polling shows the Florida race very close, but the evidence suggests that McCain, buoyed by endorsements by Sen. Mel Martinez and, on the South Carolina Democrats' election night, Gov. Charlie Crist, has some momentum. Rasmussen's Saturday numbers (reflecting polling on Friday and earlier) showed Romney up 33 to 27 percent; his Sunday numbers (reflecting Saturday night polling) showed it tied at 31 each. That's a pretty sharp turn for a tracking poll.

The movement toward McCain can also be seen in Rasmussen's national tracking. Before Christmas, McCain was running in the 8 to 15 percent range. After Christmas, when the Benazir Bhutto assassination pointed to international instability, McCain shot up to 17 percent. In polling after his New Hampshire victory, McCain has been polling in the low 20s. After his South Carolina victory, he has been in the mid-20s, 24 to 27 percent. It must be added that Mitt Romney has risen as well, from 21 percent in the January 25 results to 27 and 28 percent on January 27-28. Is this the result of votes moving to him from Fred Thompson, who withdrew January 21, and Mike Huckabee, whose support has been flagging from his pre-South Carolina numbers? It looks like it.

A Florida victory would give either candidate a major leg up in the February 5 contests. Rudy Giuliani seems likely to be effectively eliminated by Florida; Huckabee will presumably go campaigning for delegates in states like Georgia and Alabama on February 5 but looks increasingly like a fringe candidate.

The Democrats. What's fascinating here is the bitterness being expressed toward Hillary and, especially, Bill Clinton. Not by Republicans—that's nothing new—but by Democrats. Leading examples: the New Republic's Jonathan Chait ("Is the right right on the Clintons?"), Talking Point Memo's Josh Marshall, Garry Wills in Saturday's and Frank Rich in Sunday's New York Times, and Michael Tomasky in the Guardian. And then there were the Obama endorsements of Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg in Sunday's New York Times and her uncle Sen. Edward Kennedy on Monday.

Suffusing this interesting commentary is a sense that the Clintons have been willing to split the party along racial lines (conceding blacks to Obama and rallying Latinos and Jews against him) in an attempt to win. If given the two choices of winning ugly or losing, the Clintons clearly seem to prefer winning ugly. And at this point a rejection of Obama would seem to be a slap in the face at a loyal party constituency that has embraced him with enthusiasm. For evidence, see the surge of black turnout, as compared with the 2004 presidential primary, in South Carolina. Allendale County (71 percent black in 2000) cast 841 votes in 2004 and 1,438 votes (65 percent for Obama) in 2008. The largest black-majority county, Orangeburg County (61 percent black), cast 10,139 votes in 2004 and 21,329 in 2008 (66 percent for Obama).

The good news for Democrats: Turnout in their South Carolina primary was 534,746, up 82 percent from 293,843 in 2004. In contrast, turnout in the 2008 Republican South Carolina primary was 444,183, down 22 percent from 573,101 in 2000 (the last such contest). This is in line with the trend we have seen this year of much higher Democratic turnout than Republican turnout.

The bad news for Democrats: This looks like an increasingly acrimonious race and one with greater potential to split party constituencies than the equally acrimonious (but more on personal grounds) race between John McCain and Mitt Romney.

Where do the Democrats go from here? The Democrats have stripped Florida of its national delegates for scheduling its primary before February 5, and the Democratic candidates have not, technically, campaigned there—though the Clinton forces said Obama did by running national cable TV ads and the Obama forces say Clinton is doing so by holding post-South Carolina fundraisers in Florida. Clinton has called for the delegates to be restored in Michigan (which was similarly penalized by the DNC for its January 15 primary) and Florida, which is a bit rich since she left her name on the Michigan ballots, while Obama and John Edwards withdrew theirs.

Anyway, the candidates' names are on the ballot, and a record number of Democrats have been voting early (the polls opening 14 days before the January 29 primary).

And the pollsters are polling. The RealClearPolitics.com average of recent polls has Clinton with a huge 47 to 29 percent lead over Obama (with John Edwards at 14 percent). These look a lot like the national Democratic polls, which show Clinton leading Obama by an average of 42 to 32 percent; Florida has a much lower percentage of black voters than South Carolina and many more Latino and Jewish voters (who were heavily pro-Clinton in the Nevada caucuses). But note that Rasmussen's daily tracking poll shows the Democratic race tightening. Clinton shot up to a 42 to 30 percent lead just before South Carolina, but the most recent track showed Clinton leading 39 to 31 percent, and on January 26, the day of the South Carolina poll, she was leading only 36 to 33 percent. (This reflects polls taken up to Friday, January 25; were the Friday night results skewed by weekend polling factors?)

Similarly, Gallup's national tracking shows a narrowing of Clinton's margin. This suggests a much greater degree of volatility in Democrats' preferences than we saw in most of 2007.

Obama's victory margin in South Carolina was impressive. He won 81 percent of blacks' votes and 51 percent of votes cast by whites under 30. He ran even with Clinton among white men and ran about even with Clinton in heavily white but upscale counties, like Beaufort County (Hilton Head) and Berkeley County (Charleston suburbs). He clearly brought new voters to the polls to a greater extent than she did. Will we see something similar in Florida? Unclear. The Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg national poll shows Obama leading her among blacks 66 to 18 percent and trailing by only 36 to 31 percent among men—splits that look like the South Carolina exit poll.

The national polls haven't told us much of anything about the early contests, but I think we can assume they will tell us more about the contests in Florida and the February 5 states, which haven't seen the intensive personal campaigning or (in some cases) large ad buys of the previous contests. The current Florida and national numbers suggest that Clinton will win in Florida and most of the February 5 contests. But I don't think we can rule out the possibility of Obama outperforming the polls, as he did in South Carolina, primarily on turnout. The bettors at Intrade are mostly betting on Hillary winning ugly. But there's also the possibility that she may lose.