The great American melodrama of 2008 has already been a saga of improbable twists and shocking turns, each prediction defied. At its center has been the man who describes his candidacy as "an unlikely journey" – and in South Carolina he sprang one more surprise. Barack Obama won a walloping victory that ensures he heads towards next week’s Super Tuesday primary battles in 22 states as a genuine contender and with momentum on his side.
Obama did not just win in the first southern state to vote in this year’s contest, he wiped out his opponents. With 55% of the vote, he more than doubled the share commanded by Hillary Clinton. If the polls were wrong in New Hampshire, where Obama seemed to be ahead only to lose narrowly to Clinton on the night, they were more wrong in South Carolina. Most showed the Illinois senator leading in a race that seemed to be tightening; pundits thought he’d be lucky to win by a double-digit margin. Instead this was a landslide: Clinton trounced by 28 points.
When Obama addressed his supporters in a Columbia convention center on Saturday night, the mood was clear: joy stirred with relief and the sense that suddenly a historic prize was within reach. In a rousing, sometimes angry speech, the candidate led his supporters in a three-word chant that insisted that the impossible might, after all, be possible: "Yes, we can," he said, and they echoed the phrase, over and over.
If he had won small, Hillary Clinton and husband Bill – who has become a central player in the Democratic contest – would have dismissed South Carolina as a function of demographics, a Black candidate winning in a state where African American people make up half the Democratic party electorate. Bill Clinton tried to do just that on Saturday night, instantly reminding reporters that the last major African American candidate, Jesse Jackson, had also won South Carolina in 1984 and 1988.
But that is to obscure something easily forgotten about Obama. Weeks ago, polls showed him struggling to win African American support, so strong was the affinity between Black America and Bill Clinton and, by extension, his wife. Yet in South Carolina Obama won more than 80% of that vote. His two primary victories have now proved what his rhetoric had always claimed, that Obama can build a coalition that goes beyond race. In Iowa he demonstrated he could win white votes; in South Carolina he showed he could win African American ones – and in numbers.