Elastic Expectations: Obama Wins North Carolina

Barack Obama was always supposed to win North Carolina. Twenty-one percent of the state’s population (Republicans and Democrats) is black; independents (but not Limbaugh-following Republicans ) were allowed to vote; and Obama won both of the neighboring states’ primaries. Despite all this, his win, which exit polls suggest will be by double-digits, feels like a pretty big deal. Why?

Because Obama hasn’t won anything—not even a news cycle—since he won Mississippi on March 11. That was nearly two months ago, and since then he’s lost nearly every news cycle to Clinton. The Rev. Wright, bitter-gate, a lackluster debate, negative attack ads, the Rev. Wright redux—all of that has happened in the last seven weeks. It’s been the equivalent of middle school for Obama—bad things just keep happening, and everything seems like the most important and dramatic event ever.  

Obviously that’s not to say that Obama hasn’t had good news to report—throughout his dry spell he was picking up superdelegates at a faster clip than Clinton. He won his battles here and there—the gas tax is a perfect example—and Clinton never spun the broader narrative away from Obama is the front-runner; the math is daunting for Clinton.

But Obama wasn’t exactly laughing his way to an easy victory in North Carolina over the last few weeks. His lead in the polls was steadily deflating, John Edwards stayed mute, and the state’s governor endorsed Clinton. If his win is by double-digits, as is expected, it will be an impressive feat—even if it wouldn’t have been one a month ago.

Sure, the victory isn’t perfect. Obama still struggled with white voters (grabbing only 36 percent) and relied heavily on African-American support (91 percent of all black voters supported him). Half of the voters said the Rev. Wright issue was important, and 60 percent of those voters supported Clinton. But he won every socioeconomic bracket besides voters who earn $50,000 to $75,000, he’s seen as the more trustworthy candidate, and the majority of new voters sided with him.

Exit polls aside, Obama’s win feels momentous because of how different the alternative would have been. If Clinton would have won North Carolina, the wind wouldn’t have just been taken out of his sails—he would have been sailing in a vacuum. One Slate staffer even suggested that if Clinton won both Indiana and North Carolina, Clinton’s chances of winning the nomination on the Hillary Deathwatch should jump to 50 percent. But now, with a hearty victory in populous North Carolina, he likely has bumped the popular vote out of Clinton’s reach. Finally, Obama has something to smile about.

Read more of our live-blogging coverage of today’s primaries.