After South Carolina: Can Obama capture a wider swath of voters?

The black vote was key to his decisive win Saturday. To be competitive in the Feb. 5 sweepstakes, he'll need a broader coalition of independents, young people, and affluent whites, analysts say.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate US Senator Barack Obama greets supporters at his South Carolina primary night rally in Columbia, South Carolina, Saturday.

With his victory in the South Carolina primary Saturday, Sen. Barack Obama offered convincing proof of his ability to appeal to black voters. But to stay on course for the Democratic nomination when 22 states vote on Feb. 5, analysts say, Senator Obama will need to reach further and wider.

African-Americans are a big part of the Democratic vote in Georgia, Alabama, and a few other Super Tuesday states. But experts say Obama's fortunes on Feb. 5 will hinge on the groups of voters responsible for his only other win, in Iowa: independents, college students, and well-educated and affluent whites.

Also critical, experts say, will be inland states like Kansas, Colorado, and Minnesota, where many voters are wary of candidates, like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who are seen as too partisan. Obama has already picked up a string of heartland endorsements, including those of Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

Senator Clinton, Obama's chief rival, has built her Super Tuesday strategy around four states that account for 44 percent of the delegates up for grabs that day: New York, which she represents in the Senate; New Jersey, next door; Arkansas, where she was first lady; and California, where the largest cache of delegates are in play and where polls show her with a strong lead.

Obama, however, is taking a more piecemeal approach. Because votes in most Democratic contests are awarded proportionally, he will need to make precision strikes within states where Clinton is strong. Cities with many blacks, like New York, and liberal enclaves, like the San Francisco Bay Area, are on his list of targets, as are independents in New Jersey and California.

He is looking for a rout in his delegate-rich home state of Illinois. But he is also courting voters in six states caucusing on Feb. 5 – Kansas, Minnesota, Colorado, Alaska, North Dakota, and Idaho – where an aggressive turnout drive could reprise his success in Iowa.

"In many of these states, our opponents are not engaged in any organizing," Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, blogged earlier this month. "We firmly believe you cannot build a caucus operation in a matter of four weeks, so we are at a decided advantage."

If Obama captures traditionally "red" heartland states on Feb. 5, he will no doubt argue that they reflect his ability to unite voters across the ideological spectrum against a Republican foe in November.

His first campaign stops after his victory Saturday were Georgia and Alabama, states where blacks make up at least 40 percent of the Democratic vote. Clinton was headed for Tennessee, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.

A decisive win in South Carolina

In South Carolina Saturday, Obama defeated Clinton 55 percent to 27 percent. A little more than half the voters were black, and Obama took about 80 percent of their vote. Obama drew nearly one-quarter of the white vote, with Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards about evenly splitting the rest.

According to surveys of voters exiting the polls, Obama beat Clinton among both men and women; among voters in every age group except those over 65; and among nonblack voters under 30.

Edwards placed third overall, at 18 percent, a damaging setback in his native state. "I think the coffin door will be shut on him in South Carolina," says Prof. Thomas Whalen of Boston University, author of "A Higher Purpose: Profiles in Presidential Courage." "That's his backyard, and if he can't win there, forget it."

Mr. Edwards, who has yet to win a primary, vowed Saturday night to stay in the race.

Obama's victory showed that the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3 were not a fluke.

But Obama could be hurt if opponents – or the news media – portray South Carolina as a demographic quirk, analysts say. Critics accused former President Bill Clinton of playing racial politics at a recent campaign stop for his wife there, when he said voters were picking candidates on "race or gender" and "that's why people tell me Hillary doesn't have a chance of winning here."

"Obama went into South Carolina as a candidate speaking to independents, to whites, speaking to America across the divides – that was kind of his magic," says Lawrence Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. But if the results are perceived as racially polarized, Dr. Jacobs says, "it could well be that South Carolina is a race that really winds up narrowing a very broadly appealing campaign."

But others say Obama, the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, drew enough of the white vote in a conservative Southern state to defuse those questions.

Recent shift in the black vote

Of greater significance ahead of Super Tuesday, say analysts, was the evidence Saturday of Obama's deep support among African-Americans. Blacks are a key Democratic constituency, accounting for roughly 1 in 5 primary-goers nationally. Until the climb in Obama's poll numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire in December, most were supporters of Clinton.

"When Obama started this campaign, African-Americans were considered to be more in Hillary's camp than in his camp," says David Bositis, a senior political analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C., group with a focus on black issues. With a decisive victory in South Carolina, "he can in effect, say, 'OK, I've made the case with African-Americans. Now it's time for me to concentrate on these other voting groups.' "

His tallest hurdle, say analysts, will be the traditional Democrats with whom Clinton enjoys a large advantage. "He needs to run better among older voters, more blue-collar and middle-class voters, and more downscale white voters," says Philip Klinkner, a government professor at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. "That's where he's losing."

Clinton leads in national polls of Democratic voters. But if Feb. 5 fails to crown a nominee, a state-by-state war of attrition for delegates could grind on into the spring, say political observers.

"We've now moved into the phase where it's not really as much about momentum as it is the delegate count," says Jacobs. "If in 1992, the phrase was, 'It's the economy, stupid,' it's now, 'It's the delegates, stupid.' "

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.