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Obama Wins Big on Independents

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The Democrats' Super Tuesday battle offers a revealing yet indeterminate snapshot of a Democratic Party that is unusually energized and firmly divided. Barack Obama won the most states, including pivotal red territory like Missouri, Georgia and Kansas, while Hillary Clinton ran up large margins in the blue strongholds of California, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Final estimates for delegates, which ultimately choose the nominee, were close and still being tabulated overnight.

Across the country, over three million more voters turned out in Democratic primaries than Republican contests -- a trend that persisted even in traditionally conservative states. Turnout in Missouri's Democratic primary was a whopping 70% higher than the G.O.P. contest, for example, where Obama won by a point. The last time the state held two contested primaries, in 2000, Republicans beat Democratic turnout by 56%.

Those numbers suggests that in both Red and Blue states, Democrats are bolstering their ranks with an intense contest between two compelling, celebrity candidates. If Super Tuesday settled anything, it flatly debunked the baseless (and supposedly altruistic) insider concern that a long race is automatically "bad" for the Democratic Party. In reality, a primary's impact depends on the contest, the candidates and the national mood. This one is working wonders for Democratic mobilization.

While Obama strategist David Axelrod reiterated that his candidate is "always the underdog" on Tuesday night, the campaign also seized on the results as evidence that Obama has more national appeal than Clinton. While Clinton scored a few victories in key coastal states like California, she only broke 60 percent in one state, Arkansas. Obama not only won more states, but racked up victories over 60 percent in seven states, buoyed in part by organizing prowess in caucus contests. More consequentially, he won independents by large margins in most regions, including states in Clinton's column, such as Arizona and New Jersey, where one out of five primary voters were independents. He won them by 15 points in Clinton's home state of New York, and by 30 points in California. In the swing state of Missouri, independents flocked to Obama by a decisive 37 points, securing his narrow victory there.

For months, skeptics said Obama might have niche appeal among independents in small states that reward retail politicking, but he could not scale those advantages in a national race. In a single day, Obama proved his independent appeal in about half the country.

In his Tuesday night speech, Obama took the skeptics head on. "I want to speak directly to all those Americans who have yet to join this movement, but still hunger for change. We need you," he said. Calling on citizens who have been "taught to be cynical" to answer the feeling "in their gut," Obama pleaded for support to unite the nation, change American foreign policy and destroy Washington corruption. "We are the ones we've been waiting for!" Obama thundered, adding another memorable, movement-oriented line to his stump speech. (The idea, which has been credited to Arizona's Hopi Tribe and an old civil rights song, recently surfaced in Maria Shriver's endorsement of Obama on Monday.) Obama also said he would draw the best policy contrasts in the general election, as a nominee who flatly opposed the Iraq war, rejecting the Bush-Cheney policy in Iran, and never "wavered" on "fundamental" values like human rights and opposing torture.

While Clinton's speech was less pointed, she also aimed for an inspirational, unifying vision. "Here in America, we face our challenges and we embrace all of our people," she said. "We say with one voice -- give us the child who wants to learn, give us the people in need of work, give us the veterans who need our care. We say give us this economy to rebuild and this war to end!" The closing called on voters to not only back her campaign, but a cause: "Give us this nation to heal, this world to lead, this moment to seize."

Ari Melber writes for The Nation, where this column first appeared.

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