Barack Obama's landslide 28-point win in South Carolina - 55.4 percent to Hillary Clinton's 26.5 percent and John Edwards' 17.6 percent - establishes him as the first "outsider" candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976 equipped to build a bi-racial coalition.
Obama is part of a long line of insurgent candidates. But, unlike his recent predecessors, he is not limited to a virtually all-white base like Gary Hart in 1984, Bill Bradley in 2000 or Howard Dean in 2004. Nor is Obama restricted to an overwhelmingly black core of support like Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988.
Exit poll data from South Carolina shows Obama winning 78 percent of black voters to Hillary Clinton's 19 percent and John Edwards' 2 percent.
At the same time, Edwards won a 40 percent plurality among white South Carolina Democrats, to Clinton's 36 percent and Obama's 24 percent.
The most threatening development for Obama in South Carolina was that his support among white voters dropped by more than 10 points to 24 percent, down from the 34-to-38 percent range he won in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. On January 3, in the almost all-white Iowa caucus electorate, Obama won a plurality of all Democratic votes cast, and in a similarly white New Hampshire Democratic primary on January 8, he won 37 percent, just behind Clinton's 39 percent.
Yesterday, an operative within the Clinton campaign - dismissing Obama's strong performance in Iowa and New Hampshire -- sought to diminish the significance of Obama's victory in the Palmetto state by pointing out that in 1988 Jesse Jackson won South Carolina with 54 percent, beating Al Gore and Michael S. Dukakis, who received 19 and 18 percent respectively.
Charles A. Baker, a leading unaffiliated Democratic operative with 20 years experience in presidential campaigns, said the nomination contest now promises to be "the first real delegate fight on the Democratic side since 1984. This is a two-mile race not a sprint."
Along similar lines, Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's 2000 campaign, warned that "the race will get even nastier, tougher as the candidates now try to capture delegates state by state."
The most immediate question mark in the aftermath of the South Carolina contest is whether Edwards, whose core strength is among white men, can continue to compete armed with only a series of third place finishes and rapidly eroding funds.
If Edwards does give up, "the question Edwards's departure will raise is who will white male Democratic voters support in his absence?" said Ismail White, a research associate at Princeton's Center for the Study of Democratic Politics. "More precisely, how will the Obama and Clinton campaigns appeal to Edwards' supporters without alienating the groups that have begun to fall in line behind them?"
While Edwards carried 45 percent of white men in South Carolina, Obama and Clinton split the rest, 27 and 28 percent respectively. Clinton won white women with 42 percent to Edwards' 36 percent and Obama's 22 percent.
Princeton political scientist Nolan McCarty noted that Edwards' continued presence in the contest would boost Obama's prospects: "Going forward if Obama continues to get 80 percent of the African American vote and the white vote is split, I think he'll at least go into the convention with the most delegates."
UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck speculated on some interesting possible interpretations of exit poll data showing that a substantial 21 percent of those who believe Clinton would be the best nominee in November voted for Obama, while only 4 percent of those who believe Obama would be the strongest nominee voted for Clinton.
"Who are the 21 percent of people who think Clinton has the best chance in November but voted for Obama in the primary? We can't tell from the data provided, but one possibility is that they are African Americans who wanted to vote for Obama despite the fact that they think Clinton is a better candidate in November. Why is this interesting? Because it suggests to me that voting for Obama is more than just the act of casting a ballot in the primary -- it's become a signal, a symbol of something larger than just a single vote. Whether that is because Obama is a black man with viability at the Democratic nomination or because he is the most inspiring national politician since the late 1960s, he seems to have done something to capture the hearts and minds of many Americans and that can only work to his advantage as the process continues."
University of Akron political scientist John Green saw pluses and minuses for both Obama and Clinton in the South Carolina results, and nothing but trouble for Edwards: "These results may have destroyed the credibility of the Edwards campaign."
Green argued that Obama's "coalition of blacks and young affluent whites could pay dividends in some of the February 5 states--like Georgia and Missouri, and in the big cities of New York and California. But there are troubling signs as well: his weak showing among whites and older voters could be problematic because these groups are likely to be more numerous in many of the upcoming states."
There is considerable disagreement among political scientists and political activists over the significance of Obama's receipt of 24 percent of the white South Carolina vote.
Acknowledging that Obama won South Carolina decisively, Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain then added:
"The bad news is the racial divide. Obama cannot let himself be defined as a black candidate for his sake and for that of the party. And he is not a black candidate; he is half black and half white, but I bet many Democratic voters do not know this. Going forward to California, he needs to talk about his white mother. He needs to present himself as a racial fusion candidate, bridging the divide between white and non-white. What will sell in California as an uplifting message, and maybe in New York and New Jersey as well." Those are three of the largest states of the 22 holding primaries or caucuses on February 5, "Tsunami Tuesday."
Conversely, Vanderbilt political scientist Marc Joseph Hetherington argued that it is "remarkable that Obama was able to win a solid number of whites votes in a Southern state. Given the demographics of several Southern February 5th primary states, being able to win white votes will ensure that Obama will win his share of states on Super Tuesday."
Geoffrey Layman of the University of Maryland said Obama's landslide margin of victory in South Carolina was crucial to preventing post-election analyses from focusing on racial polarization, on "how well he did among blacks, but how poorly he did among whites. I think the overwhelming nature of the victory probably pushes that into the background a bit, and it also may serve to raise real questions about the negativity strategy that the Clintons have pursued recently."
The contest from now on, Layman said, will be "a battle between distinct and fairly evenly-matched constituencies....with Obama doing better among blacks, men, younger voters, better-educated people, and independents (in open primary states), and Clinton doing better among whites, women, older voters, lower income and less-well-educated voters, and staunch Democrats." The results he said, are likely to "be just as confused on the night of Feb. 5 as they are right now."