Columbia, S.C. -- Barack Obama is heading into the January 26 South Carolina Democratic primary powered by a solid lead in each of the most recent 11 polls taken here, with African American voters and a slice of the white electorate set to put him over the top next Saturday.
While Obama is expected to pick up one out of five white Democratic primary voters, his margin among such voters in this deep Southern state lags from three to fourteen percentage points behind his support among whites nationally, depending on the survey. This lag, which appears at present to hold across the entire South, challenges one of the central claims of the Obama campaign: that he is a more viable general election candidate than Hillary Clinton.
Additional poll data from Mason-Dixon and SurveyUSA studies also produce findings which run counter to the hopes and expectations of many of Obama's supporters here in South Carolina.
"Many of us remember Martin Luther King's impassioned speech calling for the day when his daughter would be judged on content of her character and not on her color," said former state Democratic chairman Dick Harpootlian earlier this week. "We think that day is here, Barack Obama is that person."
Similarly, former Democratic Governor Jim Hodges said on January 17, "I've got to tell you that as a white Southerner, it gives me an immense amount of pride to see an African American who could really win the presidency. It would do great things for race relations in the country."
Another former Democratic chair, Joe Erwin, said on January 16 that Obama's campaign "will help us to grow again in this state and across the South. To me, it speaks volumes about what this country can be and should be about race relations. Because of the history of race in this country and in this state where we had more of our share of problems, it can bridge and create a new spirit for people of all races."
If, as a number of Democratic strategists argue, the party were to write off the states of the deep South and limit efforts in the region to Florida and perhaps some states on the periphery such as Arkansas and Tennessee, Obama's apparent difficulties with white Democrats -- ranging from slight to very substantial -- would not be a significant factor in the general election. Instead, his strength with independent whites outside the South could prove to be a more important matter in assessing his viability in November.
There are a number of signals pointing to difficulties for Obama in the South.
In national surveys of white voters, conducted by television networks and newspapers, Obama has generally run ahead of John Edwards and behind Hillary Clinton. In the South, however, Edwards has run consistently ahead of Obama among whites.
Confirming Obama's relative vulnerability in the South is MIT political scientist Stephen Ansolabehere, one of the nation's leading experts on public opinion surveys who has helped coordinate a huge academically-based data collection program, the Cooperative Congressional Election Survey, including 10,000 interviews conducted in December. He found that "Obama comes in third among the white southern Democrats. Clinton gets 36 percent, Edwards 24 percent and Obama 17 percent." This amounts to a 19 point spread between Clinton and Obama, and a significant 7 point spread between Edwards and Obama.
Reflecting Ansolabehere's data, a January 14-16 Mason Dixon survey (pdf) published in The State newspaper in Columbia of 400 likely voters in the South Carolina Democratic primary found that among whites, Hillary Clinton had the support of 39 percent of respondents, John Edwards 28 and Obama 20 -- a 19 point spread between Clinton and Obama.
Obama's decisive South Carolina lead among African American Democrats in the Mason-Dixon poll -- 56 percent to Clinton's 25 and Edwards' 2 -- more than made up for the Illinois senator's white vote deficit, putting him ahead among all voters, 40 percent to Clinton's 31 and Edwards' 13.
Columbia political scientist and statistician Robert Erikson pointed out that a recent SurveyUSA poll conducted for South Carolina television stations showed that "as a group, only one in five [white South Carolina Democrats] supports Obama."
The SurveyUSA Poll conducted January 16-17 gave Obama a 10-point lead overall, but showed Obama winning only 22 percent of whites, compared to 50 percent for Clinton (a 28 point spread), and 26 percent for Edwards. Obama held a landslide margin among black voters, 74 percent, to Clinton's 20 and Edwards' 3.
Most politicians and many political analysts contend that even though the South is more conservative and more Republican than the rest of the country, Southern white Democrats are not much different from white Democrats everywhere else.
The poll numbers here in South Carolina challenge that assessment.
While white Democrats in South Carolina give Obama a level of support in the low twenties, a national ABC News/Washington Post survey released January 14 found that among white Democratic voters across the country; Obama does much better than among white southern Democrats.
The ABC/Post poll showed 33 percent of white Democrats backing Obama nationally, with 41 percent supporting Clinton and 14 percent in Edwards' corner. Nationally, there was only an 8 point spread between Clinton and Obama. Obama did less well among white voters nationally in a CBS poll released January 13, winning 24 percent to Clinton's 42 percent and Edwards' 13 percent. But he still beat Edwards by a solid 11 points.
In his analysis of Southern white Democratic poll data, Ansolabehere found:
*One of Obama's weakest levels of white support is among Democratic union members in the South: "That is Edwards' base. 50 percent of [Southern white] union members supported Edwards, 19 percent supported Clinton, and 12 percent supported Obama."
*"Clinton draws substantial support among those with high school or less education," Ansolabehere said. She had the support of 44 percent of these voters, and 31 percent of those with college degrees. Obama had the reverse pattern. Just 12 percent with a high school degree or less backed him, compared to 22 percent of those who had completed college.
*The strongest levels of white Southern support for Obama were among well-educated liberals, especially those who are not regular church-goers. Obama got 25 percent of liberal southern whites, and 12 percent of moderates.
Ansolabehere's conclusions were generally supported by the seat-of-the-pants analyses from political strategists and other political scientists.
Donna Brazile, who ran the 2000 Gore campaign, said "my sense is that it [white southern support for Obama] is independents, college students, high income, highly educated and urban whites who often back strong Black reform candidates for mayor and congressional offices."
Similarly, University of Maryland political scientist Tom Schaller said Obama is most likely to find white southern support among the "upper income, for one. Transplanted, perhaps, number two. And [in] university towns."
Rice University political scientist Earl Black said "college-educated white men, especially those with good incomes, should be more supportive than white men with modest education and/or income. Younger white Democrats (male and female) should be more supportive of Obama than older white Democrats (male and female)."
In a more cautious assessment, Gary Jacobson of the University of California-San Diego, an expert in election analysis, said, "My crystal ball is too cloudy . . . I hesitate to make any prediction at all after watching the polls bounce around so much this season."