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Polls Don't Vote Down to the Wire in South Carolina

Down to the Wire in South Carolina

by JoANN WYPIJEWSKI

Columbia, South Carolina.

Some black residents of Columbia, South Carolina, found a flier at their door yesterday morning with a banner quote:

"The Democratic candidates — with the exception of John Edwards, who opened his campaign in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward and has made addressing poverty central to his campaign ­ have virtually ignored the plight of African Americans in this country."

– the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Chicago Sun Times.

Now, this is interesting because Jackson has endorsed Barack Obama for the nomination. Endorsed him, but hasn’t been heard from. Obama did not invite him to the debate in Myrtle Beach, and has not asked him to stump for him, has not asked him to be particularly vocal. David Axlerod, Obama’s campaign guru, says Jesse’s with them, and Jesse Jr. is in the state. But Jr. isn’t daddy, and now daddy’s been put in the mix by the opposition. Not just by Edwards. The Clinton campaign is running radio ads with the endorsement of Jesse’s wife, Jacqui.

Here we are, in South Carolina, Jackson’s natal state, the place where he won 64 percent of the vote in 1988 in what was then a caucus. Not 64 percent of the black vote, of the total vote. He got 90 percent of the black vote. That was on Super Tuesday, a schedule of primaries and caucuses through the South that the then-young Democratic Leadership Council had instigated in hopes that it would secure the nomination for a white Southerner — someone like Al Gore, who was running that year, who got clobbered by Jackson on Super Tuesday and held on till after the New York primary, just long enough to stir up enough dust in Jackson’s face.

Jackson won the South in 1988, and by the end of the national contest racked up more than 7 million votes, more than Mondale had got in the ’84 general election; and 1,218.5 convention delegates, more than any runner-up in history. Twenty years later everyone including Barack Obama seems to have forgotten that. Back then pundits, as in The New Republic, warned of "certain and apocalyptic defeat" if Jackson were given a spot on the Democratic ticket, not something any cool analyst of the situation expected but a typical post for the number two at the end of a primary fight. The pundits need not have worried. He wasn’t, and Michael Dukakis, hitched to Lloyd Bentsen, a DLC Democrat, suffered his own private apocalypse.

No Democrat this year will win 64 percent of the South Carolina vote. It’s all too close. Obama, to win, needs close to a sweep of the black vote, at least 70 percent, handicappers say. People are excited at his events, no question, but despite the polls it’s not clear at all that he can do that and take enough white votes to win. Edwards is moving up in the polls, and while he’s focusing on upstate largely white areas, his poll numbers among blacks has gone from about zero to 5 percent as of yesterday. His strategy is to let Obama and Hillary basically neutralize the black vote, try to get 10 to 15 percent of that vote himself, drawn mainly from Obama, and a big swathe of whites, drawn mostly from Hillary but also Obama. One of his most important backers, Representative Leon Howard, chairman of the state black legislative caucus, says flat out, "I don’t think he’s sneaking in; I think he will win South Carolina." It seems a very long shot indeed, but stranger things have happened. He’s been working that upstate region hard, going to all the small towns most everyone else has neglected with his "Back Woods, Back Home Barnstorm," and playing on people’s desire to be asked for their vote. An Edwards event in Greenwood yesterday was pure country, with bluegrass legend Dr. Ralph Stanley singing in front of a giant American flag and leading everyone, hands held, in a round of "Amazing Grace." It was like Edwards himself ­ one part powerful, two parts corn-pone, and very white. There was none of the energy of an Obama or Hillary event and, like his TV ads, it betrayed the campaign’s dwindling bank account. But afterward three young black students at Lander University said they thought it mattered who bothered to come to their town. They wouldn’t say who they had settled on, except to say that it was not Hillary. A black local elected official who’s backing Edwards there just said, "The polls don’t vote."

Immediately after the debate on Monday, Edwards did something that seemed to play right into Clinton’s hand. She left the state and sent Bill in instead. Edwards has been harping on this, saying she abandoned the state and the campaign. Nothing could be further from the truth, but it had the effect of raising expectations particularly among Obama people at the beginning of the week. The Clintons did the same in New Hampshire, lowering expectations for their own success while working like hell to win, trying to lull the opposition into a false sense of security. The Edwards camp can have no sense of security, seeing as they’ve come from the basement, but it’s different for Obama, and yesterday some Obama people were considerably more nervous.

It’s hard to overestimate the power of the Clinton machine. It’s not just what everyone knows ­ their money, their connections, their ruthlessness. It’s the air of professionalism that surrounds a Clinton event, and the vans that have schlepped people in to be part of the audience, the teams of campaign workers deployed in the arenas looking as if they’ve been schooled to do this kind of thing, the instructions on the press advisories, as particular about times and voltage requirements for media soundtrucks as any of those famous Clinton policy papers. At the Civic Center in Anderson yesterday, an upstate town near the Georgia border, Hillary held one of her in-the-round town hall meetings. The crowd was mostly white, mostly female, mostly old. Nothing moving about it, nothing like the energy of an Obama event, which also has the feel of professionalism too, only in a scrappier way. You get the feeling that as organized as it might be, the Obama camp doesn’t quite realize the bulldozer just over the horizon ready to clobber it. Clinton the candidate is now almost charming, very good in her Oprah style setting, the voice lowering in timbre and edge at all important moments, but in every word letting audiences know she is ready to flatten the opposition if need be.

Yesterday in Anderson she sounded just like Reagan in his first inaugural address. There’s not anything we cannot do, Reagan said that January of 1981 ­ why? "because we’re Americans!" Clinton struck that note again and again: we are richer, we are stronger, "we are no ordinary people." "We can roll up our sleeves and get the job done. We have created more prosperity than the world has ever seen. There isn’t anything we can’t do, but we’ve got to start believing in ourselves again."

The combination of American triumphalism and victimization was pure Reagan, whose messages in ’81 and again at the inaugural in ’85 were all about the country’s need to believe in itself again: believe in itself to destroy the Evil Empire and let wealth and freedom flow. Clinton is Reagan’s child, but the others aren’t calling her on it, because in a sense so are they. This is the point Obama should have but, as a contender for the Democratic Party, could not have made: Clintonism was but a clever extension of Reaganism, and despite superficial differences, both parties are Reagan’s children. Hillary ticks off all the investments she plans to make in the future of plain old Americans. Her TV ads blast the oil companies, the predatory student loan companies, the insurance companies, the drug companies, who, in her telling, have had a patron in the White House only for the past seven years. Suddenly, she’s a populist, and the Clinton era really was all about "Putting People First." But she starts off her central economic spiel on the road by saying the number one issue is to reign in the deficit, to get back to balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility. Her crowds cheer. She blasts Bush for all the money allocated to the Iraq War, all of which she voted for but "not one penny" of which has been paid for with real money. Again the crowds cheer. If Obama’s people have their heads in the clouds, Clinton’s have theirs in some dangerous never-never land. Talk about a "fairy tale."

And the fairy tale prince is working overtime. Anyone who says Bill should stay out of Hillary’s way, out of the campaign is a fool. He might be hurting the party in the end, as some commentators, most recently Robert Reich, have said. And the other day an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute was envisioning the prospect of a Democratic Convention riven by the passions of the Obama and Hillary camps, each saying, "It’s our turn!" It’s true that after New Hampshire, after the debate and the trash-talking of Obama it seemed Bill and Hill imagined themselves as the benevolent Massa and Missus, now furious that people might suddenly make a break from their plantation. But Bill on the trail remains a phenomenon. He was at a primary school in the small town of Barnwell last night. The former president of the United States, stumping in a small venue (500) as if this were his first time, shaking hands, looking at the women in an unmistakably suggestive manner (not quite a leer but not without sexual energy either) and spending time talking one-on-one as if his political life depended on it. That event, far smaller than Obama’s of the other day, had the same kind of excitement and the same kind of mix, not a majority of old white women now but kids and big haired women, black church lady types and good old boys, South Asians, black working and professional people, a girl with a punkish green streak in her hair and ripped jeans, people mobbing the candidate ­ which is how he plays it, as if campaigning for his own restoration. Obama was right the other day when he said at the debate that sometimes he didn’t know whom he was running against. He is running against them both. And as Hillary has been jetting in and out of the state all week, in South Carolina, Obama is definitely running against Bill.

Behind all the smiles and good feeling is something far uglier. No one has to go through metal detectors to see Edwards or Hillary or even Bill. No one has to be frisked, wanded, their bags inspected. Last night Bill had eight clearly recognizable Secret Service agents around him and the local and county police had provided eighteen officers for additional security. Obama has at least ten Secret Service agents and probably as many cops around him. Going to one of his events is like boarding a plane. The other day, there was a rumor passed through the long line that we’d have to take our shoes off. Outside the Anderson event, I met a couple of white Republicans who came out just to have a look at Hillary. They’d voted in their own primary but said if they were Democrats or in a general election, they’d pick Obama. Theirs wasn’t the Limbaugh-style Hillary hatred. They were offended by what they saw as the Clintons’ "playing the race card" on Obama. And that morning their daughter had received an e mail saying Watch out, Obama is a Muslim. Later that day, the man said, he went to his bank and the teller told him she’d got one of those e mails too. The Clinton camp naturally disavows any relationship to this kind of thing. And on the trail if there’s animosity it melts away in the warm, tactile presence of the former president.

Jesse Jackson has the same kind of effect on a South Carolina crowd of black voters ­ at least he did four years ago when I saw him here. The Obama people would not respond to a question of why they’ve kept Jesse out, but it seems to be an error. Maybe they’re running a general election campaign, fearing Jackson’s presence is too polarizing, too black for future races. They kept him out of Las Vegas, too, where a few years ago I saw him speak to a huge throng of heavily Latino casino workers, who remembered that he was there on their picket lines, standing with them when no cameras were around, giving them moral support in hard-fought strikes. It was like 1988 all over again, I remember thinking. The conventional wisdom says that the more Latinos identify Obama with being black the more they turn to Hillary. That may be true, but it may also have more to do with the fact that the Clintons have a lock on the Latino Democratic machine. Anyway you cut it, Obama’s dissing of Jackson in the primary race, particularly in South Carolina, looks wrong. The Clintons and the mainstream press have put Obama in a position where he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t: too black and they play a race game on him; not black enough and they act as themselves the rightful inheritors of the title as America’s first black first couple. Now both Edwards and the Clintons are banking on at least some residual benefit of a Jackson connection, and all Obama can do, if he does anything, is to react.

JoANN WYPIJEWSKI writes for CounterPunch and other publications. She can be reached at jwyp@earthlink.net