03/28/2008 02:45 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's South Carolina Test: How Many White Votes Will He Get?

The crucial number in Barack Obama's expected victory in the South Carolina primary today will be the percentage of white voters who cast ballots for the Illinois Senator.

Obama's performance among whites - he appears likely to win 60 percent or more of African-American votes - will provide a rough gauge of the willingness of white Democratic southerners to support a black presidential candidate.

In Iowa on January 3, Obama won a 35 percent plurality of the virtually all-white electorate, and on January 8 in similarly white New Hampshire Obama won 37 percent of votes cast, just behind Hillary Clinton's 39 percent.

In Nevada , Obama's percentage of white caucus-goers remained in the same range, 34 percent, while Clinton won 54 percent -- as whites who had supported Joe Biden, Chris Dodd (and other candidates who either dropped out or were fading fast) shifted to her.

In the four most recent polls of South Carolina voters, the percentage of whites supporting Obama is significantly lower, ranging from 24 percent to 10 percent, although when the actual votes are counted, his percentage it's likely to be higher, because there will be no "undecided" ballots cast.

The Washington Post noted on Friday, "The audiences at Clinton's events over the last two days -- with the exception of a rally at a black college in Columbia on Friday -- have been largely white, a surprising development in a state where half the Democratic electorate is African American."

With Obama heading towards victory in South Carolina, Bill Clinton has sought to draw attention to Obama's dependence there on black voters.

Clinton put his not-very-subtle strategy on display in Charleston on Thursday when he told an audience: "As far as I can tell, neither Senator Obama nor Hillary have lost votes because of their race or gender," he said. "They are getting votes, to be sure, because of their race or gender -- that's why people tell me Hillary doesn't have a chance of winning here."

Obama, in turn, has sought to make the case to South Carolinians that he can and should be the candidate of all Democrats, regardless of race:

"If I came to you and I had polka dots but you were convinced that I was going to put more money in your pockets and help you pay for college and keep America safe, you'd say, 'OK, I wish he didn't have polka dots, but I'm still voting for him..'"

Asked to assess Clinton's remarks, Obama said, "I'll let the Clintons speak to what their strategy is going to be."

Campaign experts hold widely divergent views of Bill Clinton's comments.

"Bill Clinton is simply trying lower expectations for HRC in South Carolina," said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "If Obama wins big with African-Americans tomorrow in SC, as I expect he will, I don't think it would narrowly define him as a 'black candidate.'.... It's pretty clear that there are more than enough whites who'd vote for Obama to both nominate and then elect him in the general."

Alan Abramowitz, of Emory University, took a more ambivalent view of recent campaign developments. Clinton, he said, "was trying to send a subtle message here that Obama was the candidate of black voters in S.C., while conceding that Hillary was also getting votes based on gender. Not an overt racial message, but certainly a racial subtext."

At the same time, Abramowitz added:

"The whole idea of a racial divide among Democrats in S.C. or the nation is vastly overstated. I would expect that the vast majority of black Democratic voters, including those who support Obama, have a highly positive view of Hillary Clinton. Likewise, I would expect that the vast majority of white Democratic voters, including those who support Clinton and Edwards, have a highly positive view of Obama. So the apparent racial divide when you look at the patterns of candidate support is not associated with a real racial divide in evaluations of the candidates."

David Leege, Notre Dame political scientist, takes a very different view, and has a much tougher interpretation of Bill Clinton's motives.

"There is a substantial residual of race-related fear, and President Clinton's frequent invocation of race/gender differences is tapping into it. Iowa and New Hampshire did not have the demographics to tempt Obama's opponents to play to racial identity, but from here on the demographics for this style of campaigning are very seductive. I look for continued hints, then denials and high road talk, then hints, etc."

The Obama campaign is struggling to find a way to choke off both Clinton rhetoric on race and the recently growing inclination of the media to define the contest in terms of race.

Their problem, one knowledgeable source in Obama's campaign noted, is that to confront the issue, and specifically to confront Bill or Hillary Clinton, would only serve to "expand" a discussion that Obama supporters view as likely to undermine the colorblind premise of his campaign.

Putting on the record views that Obama officials discussed only on background, Darren Davis, a political scientist at Notre Dame and an expert in African American political attitudes and behavior, told the Huffington Post:

"Obama has attempted to run a deracialized or racially transcendent campaign. By avoiding racially divisive issues, associating with traditional civil rights organizations, and eschewing controversial black figures, such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, Obama has attempted to appeal to white voters. Thus, Obama has no incentive to become embroiled in racial issues, though Hillary Clinton has every incentive to racialize Obama.... If Obama wins South Carolina and if it is attributed to the black vote, which in all likelihood will happen, this would not be good for Obama. While he will be awarded the delegates, the more he is labeled a "black candidate" [the more it] will cost him white votes in subsequent primaries."

A veteran Democratic strategist argued that the references to race by Bill and Hillary Clinton are modest compared to what Obama may face in the future: "It's nothing compared to what the Republicans will do if Obama is the nominee come the general election."