Tonight’s victory of Barack Obama was a lot bigger than anyone expected. Most pollsters expected a victory of around 10 points; only one predicted a victory of 20 points. While they correctly predicted the uptick in support for Edwards, they did not predict the huge margin of victory that Obama would take.
The X Factor in this race was the attacks of Bill Clinton on Obama this week. However, it turned out that these attacks created a huge backlash against Hillary and led to Obama’s unexpectedly wide margin. Obama’s victory will undoubtedly give him momentum going into the next race; however, the big question is how much?
The reason that I ask this question is because the next battle will be totally different than the four battles that came before it. In the previous four battles, the winner was the candidate who could do the best at practicing retail politics — this was a turf that clearly favored Obama. With his huge gift for oratory and his ability to draw some of the largest crowds ever for political campaigns, Barack Obama was able to generate the kind of grassroots support that propelled him to convincing wins in Iowa and South Carolina, a narrow loss in New Hampshire, and a tie in Nevada.
But this will be a totally different battle than the one before it, because it will be decided on the airwaves. Stump speeches will be important, but the candidates will have to try to appeal to audiences much bigger than the small audiences that they appealed to before. The battle will be won and lost based on who can create the best commercials that appeal to voters. So, if Obama cannot give people flashes of his oratorical skills in 30 seconds, then he will be in even more hot water than he is already — he trails by double digits in the all-important state of California. And that is on top of the fact that he is still trailing the delegate count to Hillary.
There is also the matter of the race card. Bill Clinton is already pointing to the fact that Jesse Jackson won handily in South Carolina in 1984 and 1988. The pundits are already trying to portray this as a venus fly trap for Obama — a victory in South Carolina would be seen as a victory for the Black Candidate, while White and Latino voters would reject the lead of Iowans and vote for Hillary. Obama has already pushed back against this meme in his victory speech tonight by portraying his campaign as one of the most diverse in history and one which is about all Americans whether they are Black or White or Latino or whatever. And not only that, he has sought to address his weaknesses among Latino voters, a group that went 3-1 for Hillary in the Nevada caucuses, talking about his union work with Latinos in Chicago.
But the next question is, who benefits if Clinton makes this an issue about race? There was an interesting statistic from the South Carolina results — the winner of the White vote was not Hillary, but John Edwards. John Edwards is already rising in some of the Super Tuesday polls around the country — he is second in Missouri now in addition to Oklahoma; people who are fed up with the mudslinging between the Hillary and Obama camps are turning to him. So, if Hillary and Bill continue to try to make their strategy about race instead of the issues, then based on the numbers out of South Carolina, that would give Edwards traction to gain delegates and votes in Super Tuesday. Edwards has already seen a spike in interest in his campaign since his strong showing in the Tuesday debates, getting record contributions, although it still does not match the eye-popping contributions that Hillary and Obama are getting. However, the fact that he is short of money compared to the other two, in addition to the fact that he is hampered even more due to his shortage of money due to the larger stage means that the larger field will be a grave disadvantage for him. So, he will likely do well enough to get delegates in this race; however, his most likely role will be as kingmaker in this race. Both Clinton and Obama treated Edwards with kid gloves in the last debate because they knew that Edwards might be able to tip the nomination to one of them.
For Obama to win, he must be able to build on his South Carolina speech and be able to portray himself as a uniter who can heal the partisan divide in this country. In order to do so, he must be able to define himself and not let the Clintons define him. For his approach to work, he must be able to portray himself as a candidate who is above the fray. Yet the challenge here is for him to be able to do it without ignoring the attacks that the Clintons are likely to launch. There is another way that he might try to win — he could go into the gutter with Hillary, try to drive her negatives so high that Edwards wins up doing much better than expected, and knock her out of the race; after all, Edwards came in fairly close in third place. Then, he could turn around and try to knock out Edwards by virtue of his superior cash.
John Edwards is an extreme longshot to win the nomination at this point. However, he could do it the same way that Russ Feingold did — Feingold won the 1992 Democratic nomination because his two better-known opponents were so busy slinging mud at each other that Russ was able to make an issue out of it and win. We are already seeking an uptick in Edwards’ numbers — he did better in NH than he did four years ago, and he jumped in the polls in the last week in SC. The more Hillary gets into the gutter with Obama, the more that people might get disgusted by both of them and turn to the candidate who is above the fray — John Edwards.