Jay Cost takes a look at the primaries so far and asks whether Barack Obama can win enough white votes to prevail. The result in South Carolina might seem to place in doubt the concern that Iowa might seem to have laid to rest.
As is obvious, Obama won South Carolina by mobilizing an extraordinarily large African-American electorate...and winning a much smaller proportion of the white vote than in the previous contests.
Were this pattern--once established--to persist, Clinton would beat Obama in a walk almost everywhere. If the price of Obama’s victory in South Carolina is that he comes to be viewed as "the black candidate," then that might seem to be a price the Clintons are willing to pay.
But I wonder. In South Carolina, native son John Edwards did much better among whites than he’d done elsewhere (twice as well, for example, as in New Hampshire). About 40% of the Edwards voters said they’d be dissatisfied if Clinton were the Democratic nominee. Similarly, about 40% of his S.C. voters said they’d be dissatisfied in Obama were the nominee. I can’t tell if it’s the same people in both cases, but around that proportion of his voters called themselves Republicans or independents. I’m betting that if Edwards is less of a factor for white voters in other states--either because he’s clearly a non-factor in general or because he’s not a favorite son (except in N.C.)--Obama will regain at least his previous share of the white vote. Added to the African-American vote (generally roughly twice as large in the Democratic primaries than in the electorate as a whole), 35-40% of the white vote ought to give Obama a fighting chance against the Clintons. Any better, and Hillary would be in deep trouble, save in states, like California, where the Hispanic vote were enormous.
My question is what proportion of the Edwards vote is an "Anybody-But-Hillary" vote, which would flow to Obama if Edwards dropped out. It’s hard to predict that on the basis of South Carolina, but in New Hampshire a substantially higher percentage of Edwards voters regarded HRC unfavorably than they did Obama. If that’s "normal" (is anything about New Hampshire "normal"?), then Edwards’ continued presence in the race actually hurts Obama more than Clinton. He splits the anti-Hillary vote with Obama and makes it easier to paint Obama as the African-American candidate. Perhaps the Clintons ought to promise him a plum position if he stays in, just as Obama has mentioned him as a potential A.G. in his Administration.
Update: For evidence that at least one of the Clintons would like us to regard Obama as the black candidate, go here.