Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton so badly in South Carolina it may spawn some new kind of Southern colloquialism. When Clemson spanks an opponent by five touchdowns it will be called an Obama. Fans will taunt the losing team as they walk off the field by making an “O” against their foreheads.
What increased the impact of the trouncing is not just that it’s a more than 40-point swing from polls in November where Clinton led Obama by 20 points but that the Clinton campaign worked so hard to knock Obama down in the previous week. Clinton surrogate Robert Johnson introduced Hillary at a South Carolina event two weeks ago by slinging mud at Obama and challenging his blackness. In the debate last Tuesday, Hillary Clinton was thoroughly aggressive and effective in raising questions not just about Obama’s record but about his character. Clinton’s campaign stayed in Obama’s face in every news cycle in a way they hadn’t before, raising a series of ethical questions about his ties to former backer Tony Rezko and trying to hang him with his own praise for Ronald Reagan and Republicans. Bill Clinton was unleashed across the state taking on Obama and the press, which he upbraided for giving the challenger an easy ride.
Clinton also went after John Edwards. At the last minute, as Edwards started climbing in the polls, the Clinton campaign unleashed phone calls that essentially said he was a big phony.
Going into primary day, the national press and political class obsessed over whether Obama’s victory would be diminished because he performed disproportionally well among African-Americans. Obama did in fact obliterate his opponents among black voters, winning 82 percent of the vote, but he also got a quarter of the white vote. Obama also did well among independents, who made up 23 percent of the primary electorate: He beat Clinton 40 percent to 23 percent, which helps his argument to Democrats voting in future states that he can capture those swing voters in a contest with Republicans in the fall.
A big question facing the Clinton campaign is whether to put the Big Dog, Bill Clinton, back on the porch. The Himbo eruptions before the New Hampshire primary and Nevada caucus appeared to help Hillary. Campaign aides thought that while columnists might disapprove, Bill Clinton was effective in pushing the idea that Obama had gotten a free ride from the press. But after South Carolina we might see Bill Clinton suddenly dispatched to solve some new crisis in a country with no satellite trucks and no cell towers. The South Carolina result suggests that he wasn’t effective and raises the question of whether his antics during the past week reminded voters that the whole Clinton circus is one that they just don’t want coming to town. Bill Clinton is now a news management question—how many stories in the coming days will be about him and not about her?—and he’s also a management question for Hillary Clinton. Why can’t she control him, pundits will ask.
John Edwards had another tough night finishing third in a state he won in 2004. After the bickerfest debate earlier in the week, he tried to take the high road, saying he was running as the adult in the Democratic Party, but that pitch didn’t work. What does he do now? If he stays in the race, he might want to rethink all that support he gave Hillary during the last debate. He defended her and attacked Obama, and all he got was an accusation that he’s a counterfeit home forecloser? Clinton, for her part, might feel a little nervous that Edwards will pay her back for those last-minute phone calls in the next debate on Jan. 31.
Now the candidates scatter for the 10 days before the huge 22-state Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses. We’re in for another round of brutal trench warfare in a race that probably won’t be decided until March or maybe later.
After Obama won the Iowa caucuses, he proclaimed that those in the audience would look back many years from now—after the movement they had created had taken Washington and changed people’s lives by passing his program—and they would say that the movement for change had started that night. That historical trajectory was interrupted by Obama’s losses in New Hampshire and Nevada, but now he can write a new start. In South Carolina, Obama got his movement back.