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The battle for voters in South Carolina

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have almost evenly split the critical black vote in South Carolina, the first nominating state with a major African-American population. But what about the white vote?
John Edwards, Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton
Democratic presidential candidates former Sen. John Edwards, left, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., center, and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., look out over the crowd after they participated in the Yearly Kos Convention's Presidential Leadership Forum in Chicago, Saturday, Aug. 4, 2007. Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

Oprah’s rally with Barack Obama at the University of South Carolina in Columbia on Sunday is one more vignette in the prevailing narrative of South Carolina’s Democratic primary: National campaigns are dancing to get the votes of the African-American half of the electorate.

As the first nominating state with a major African-American population, the Palmetto State will be a critical test for both Obama and Hillary Clinton; Obama as the first serious African-American presidential candidate and Clinton as the wife of the man sometimes referred to as America’s first black president.

Yet as Obama and Clinton battle for black voters, a significant group is being overlooked: white Democrats. While the two leading candidates have almost evenly split the critical black vote, Clinton is running away with the white vote.

“There is a sizable divide in the preferences of white and black voters in South Carolina: Obama runs even with Clinton among likely African-American voters (Obama 44 percent vs. Clinton 43 percent).

However, Clinton holds a significant advantage among white Democratic voters in South Carolina (Clinton 49 percent, Obama 16 percent, John Edwards 20 percent),” explained the AP-Pew poll released on Dec. 3.

A Rasmussen poll released on Dec. 6 showed slightly different results: Obama had gained among black voters to lead with 51 percent, while Clinton had 27 percent. Among white voters, though, Clinton led with 43 percent and Edwards and Obama trailed with 22 and 17 percent, respectively.

In a state that has been trending Republican in general elections for decades (a switch signaled as early as legendary Sen. Strom Thurmond’s switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party in 1964), Democrats rarely see a contested primary and just as rarely see Democratic presidential candidates after the primary.

In the 2004 general election, South Carolina native son and vice presidential nominee Edwards barely campaigned in his home state after winning its primary easily. Bush won South Carolina with 58 percent to Kerry’s 41 percent.

So it makes sense, as Furman University political scientist Danielle Vinson explained, that both white and black Democrats are excited about their choices in this primary.

In the hometown of Edwards, who is currently running third, white voters said they were concerned about the same issues as black voters: jobs and health care.

“I hear more about health care because so many people don’t have it, and they’re having to choose between having medicine and not having it,” explained Dan Alexander, who has been mayor of Seneca for 10 years.

Alexander continued to explain that two textile mills that have closed in the area in the last five years took about 1,000 jobs with them. He said both black and white residents have been affected and are now looking for the same thing in a presidential nominee.

“They want a brighter future for their children,” he said. “They want to make a living.”

Political scientist Vinson agreed that jobs and health care are the two biggest issues in the primary.

“As much as our state has this long history of racial tension, the reality is there’s a lot of common ground on what affects us all,” Vinson said, adding that differences between black and white Democrats aren’t as stark as socioeconomic differences, especially between “homegrown” and “transplanted” South Carolinians.

Vinson, who grew up in Columbia, said that homegrown Democrats are more likely to be blue-collar workers, while others who have retired in South Carolina seem to be better off financially and aren’t part of the same deep religious tradition, which can lead to them being less socially conservative.

Most of all, she said Democrats in South Carolina are concerned about – you guessed it – jobs and health care.

“Jobs is the first [priority], especially NAFTA and these trade agreements,” said Juanita Huff, a 17-year resident of Seneca. An Edwards supporter in both 2004 and 2008, she listed immigration and education as her second and third priorities.

Kathleen Gaffney said she, too, voted for Edwards in 2004 but is now also considering Obama. Her biggest concerns in the election are getting out of Iraq and the economy. Her daughter Beth McWilliams interjected that she thinks reforming health care is as important as leaving Iraq. She said she is narrowing down her choices between Clinton, Edwards and Joe Biden, explaining that Obama is “a little too new to politics” and the other three “have really shown what they’re made of.”

Merle Black, a political scientist from Emory University in Atlanta, said voters’ preferences in South Carolina will change dramatically depending on what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire.

“If Obama upsets Hillary in Iowa and wins New Hampshire, then I think he would be favored to win the South Carolina primary,” he said. “African-Americans like Obama but may be concerned that they are essentially throwing away their vote.”

Al Sharpton, who had hoped black voters in South Carolina would buoy his 2004 candidacy, could testify. He finished with less than one percent each in Iowa and New Hampshire and bounced to just 10 percent in South Carolina, behind Edwards and Kerry. He dropped out of the race six weeks later.

“If [Clinton] loses something early and Obama is really energized, then I think the South Carolina Democratic primary could certainly go for Obama, and there could be considerable white support,” Black concluded.