COLUMBIA, S.C. — For years, Barack Obama has simmered over the notion — based in some reality — that he won his U.S. Senate seat from Illinois because of a series of flukes. Denied New Hampshire and Nevada by Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama wanted a South Carolina victory to prove that his Iowa win was not a fluke.
He got it big on Saturday. And more or less the way he wanted — with support from across the state: the Piedmont, the Lowlands and almost every region — crossing race, income, age, and gender lines. His enormous margin of victory came with the help of African Americans who voted for him in landslide numbers.
Obama’s top adviser, David Axelrod, said the showing — 55 percent for Obama to 27 percent for Clinton and 18 percent for John Edwards — was “a great repudiation of the politics of division and a great affirmation of the politics of unity and possibility.”
Exit polls of Democratic voters, interviews with 1,905 respondents taken for the networks and the Associated Press, tell the story of how Obama won in this first southern state to have a say in determining the Democratic nominee.
South Carolina was picked by the Democrats for an early primary because of its large African-American population, put on the calendar long before Obama emerged as the first viable African-American candidate for the presidency. Obama took pains to not be labeled a “black” candidate in a state with a stained racial history and where the Confederate flag still flies on the statehouse grounds.
More than half of the voters (55 percent) Saturday were black and Obama won a whopping 78 percent with Clinton at 19 percent and Edwards pulling only about 2 percent.
Obama lost the white vote, potential trouble for Obama as he moves ahead to what amounts to a national election on Feb. 5 with 22 states holding a primary or caucus vote. Obama lost the white vote 24 percent to 36 percent for Clinton and 40 percent for Edwards.
Another finding is promising for Obama: He shut down the gender gap that fueled Clinton wins in New Hampshire and Nevada. Females turned out to vote 61 percent to 39 percent for males. Obama won 54 percent of the women to 30 percent for Clinton and 16 percent for Edwards.
Race was a factor in the South Carolina campaign, with the Clintons being accused at points of playing the race card as the nearly yearlong race drew to a close. But the exit polls show that 69 percent of people decided who to support before last week — meaning the bitter tone of last Monday’s debate and the hard-hitting comments about Obama’s record by former President Bill Clinton may not have played an important role.
Obama argues that he is the most electable Democrat in the November general election because he can attract independent and Republican voters. In the South Carolina primary, some 23 percent described themselves as independent — and Obama won 42 percent of those votes compared with 32 percent for Edward and 26 percent for Clinton.
Obama’s claim that he can pull Republicans into the Democratic tent has yet to be proved. Only 4 percent of the voters in the Democratic contest said they were Republicans and Edwards won 43 percent of them to 37 percent for Obama and 20 percent for Clinton.
In all, an impressive showing. Obama is done with fluke.