Senator Barack Obama scored a resounding victory in South Carolina’s Democratic primary. Earning 55 percent of the votes, he doubled Senator Hillary Clinton’s total of 27 percent and three-times the 18 percent Senator John Edwards received. It was a primary he had to win to stay competitive going into Super Tuesday on February 5th. He did more than win, he achieved a picture-perfect landslide. So why should he be worried?
Because before South Carolina and the Nevada caucuses last week, Senator Obama was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. After South Carolina he is in tottering on becoming an African American candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, and that’s quite a different thing.
This isn’t his strategy nor is it his intent. Senator Obama embraces the historic nature of his candidacy, but he has carefully crafted a strategy that puts his calls for change and a new kind of politics front-and-center. His intent is clearly to run a broadband campaign. Being perceived as narrowcasting undermines this effort.
Yet the Clinton campaign, and the response Senator Obama needed to make, moved race to the forefront. The media incessantly focused on race during the past two weeks . (Is there anyone who doesn’t know blacks were expected to make up 50 percent of the vote in South Carolina?) And in their analysis of the results, it was the number one topic of discussion.
Senator Obama is aware of the danger and is already working hard to escape it. In his victory speech he returned repeatedly to his desire to be a president for all Americans. “The choice in this election is not about regions or religions or genders. It’s not about rich versus poor, young versus old and it’s not about black versus white. It’s about the past versus the future,” he said at one point in the speech.
He also emphasized the support he received from South Carolina’s Latino population (never mind that represented less than two percent of the vote). And his staff was no doubt busy reminding reporters that he received 24 percent of the votes cast by white South Carolinians (Senator Edwards received 40 percent of their votes and Senator Clinton 36 percent according to the MSNBC exit poll). But the mere fact he had to make the effort — the mere fact I’m writing this post — underscores the bind he’s in.
If Senator Obama lets himself get pigeon holed he diminishes his electability. Americans don’t tend to elect presidents who are too identified with a single constituency. Former Governor Mike Huckabee is finding this out. He’s perceived as the candidate of the religious right, making it difficult for him to reach out to the broader electorate. He’s fallen from a statistical tie for the lead in Tuesday’s Florida primary to a more distant third.
Senator Obama has proven himself a savvy political pro. He had a restrained response to attacks from the Clinton campaign. This made clear who was going negative. Then in the debate he pushed back hard. He demonstrated a resolve and toughness that, to many at the time, seemed to indicate the Clintons were “getting inside his head.” In reality, it was a reminder that he learned the art of politics in Chicago and was more than ready to play in the big leagues. While the bickering gave Senator Edwards, the “grown up” in the debate, a boost, it clearly didn’t hurt him with South Carolina voters.
Now the challenge for Senator Obama is to get the media talking about something other than race. His most potent strategy would be to deliver a couple of heavy duty policy statements between now and February 5th. The topics aren’t important, but the detail and substance will be. The benefits of this approach are two-fold.
First, it counters the “where’s the beef” charges Senators Clinton and Edwards are and will be challenging him on. They will claim he’s high on charisma, but lacking in substance. A boring, six point plan to solve an issue of the day blunts their attacks. Second, each policy speech forces the media to focus on what he’s saying for a news cycle. It makes them pay attention to Senator Obama the candidate — without any preceding modifier other than “one of the front runners.”
And leading up to February 5th, that would be a very good thing for his campaign. At least as good as a landslide in South Carolina.