Human Nature

Open Primary

Obama’s breakthrough among whites.

A week ago, Bill Clinton shrugged off Barack Obama’s strength in South Carolina by pointing out, “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in ‘84 and ‘88.” Nobody missed the insinuation: Jackson owed his victory to black support, and Obama was relying on the same easy, dead-end strategy.

Look back at Jackson’s performance on Super Tuesday 1988, as Jon Cohen of the Washington Post did last week, and you’ll see Clinton’s point. Jackson’s biggest share of the white vote that day was 16 percent in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. In 10 of the 16 states that voted, he didn’t even reach double digits.

As the 1988 contest narrowed, Jackson still couldn’t crack a low ceiling. In the Michigan caucuses, his big win of the year, he picked up only 15 percent to 20 percent of the white vote, according to a Post analysis. In Connecticut, head to head against Michael Dukakis, Jackson got just 18 percent to 22 percent. In New York, Dukakis held him to 15 percent.

Now look at Obama’s performance in the first four contests of 2008. He took 33 percent of the white vote in Iowa, 36 percent in New Hampshire, 34 percent in Nevada, and 24 percent in South Carolina. In every outing, he beat Jackson’s best performances of 1988.

Still, it was possible to argue, as Clinton implicitly did, that Obama’s ceiling, like Jackson’s, was limited. Obama hadn’t cracked 40 percent of the white vote anywhere. He hadn’t even cracked 37 percent. Pundits theorized that John Edwards’ presence in South Carolina helped Obama by splitting white support that would otherwise go to Hillary Clinton. The theory implied that in a two-person contest, Obama still wouldn’t draw much white support.

Tonight’s results crushed that argument. Even if you don’t count Obama’s caucus victories in Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, and North Dakota, he shattered his previous white-vote ceiling in 11 other states. In eight states, he crossed the 40 percent threshold. In Connecticut, he tied Clinton among whites. In California, he beat her. In Utah and Illinois, he won commanding majorities.

I don’t mean to oversell what Obama accomplished tonight. It’s easier to ascend from the 20 percents to the 40 percents when you’ve got only one opponent left. It’s easier to climb from 30 percent to 40 percent than from 40 percent to 50 percent. And it’s easier to win support from white Democrats than from white Republicans. But when you look at Obama’s numbers tonight and compare them to Jackson’s numbers 20 years ago, you’re looking at a sea change. This is not a diversity-training exercise. It’s a nationwide primary to choose the next president of the United States. The American color barrier, at its highest level, is collapsing.

That’s been a central theme of Obama’s campaign all along. The message of South Carolina, he suggested in his speech tonight, was that “maybe we don’t have to be divided by race and region and gender.” But that message didn’t come from South Carolina. It came from California, Arizona, Connecticut, and the other states that voted Tuesday. And with those votes, an aspiration is becoming a reality. No matter whom you support for president, that’s a victory worth celebrating.