Published on TheHill.com on January 23, 2008.
Hillary Clinton will undoubtedly lose the South Carolina primary as African-Americans line up to vote for Barack Obama. And that defeat will power her drive to the nomination.
The Clintons are encouraging the national media to disregard the whites who vote in South Carolina’s Democratic primary and focus on the black turnout, which is expected to be quite large. They have transformed South Carolina into Washington, D.C. -an all-black primary that tells us how the African-American vote is going to go.
By saying he will go door to door in black neighborhoods in South Carolina matching his civil rights record against Obama’s, Bill Clinton emphasizes the pivotal role the black vote will play in the contest. And by openly matching his record on race with that of the black candidate, he invites more and more scrutiny focused on the race issue.
Of course, Clinton is going to lose that battle. Blacks in Nevada overwhelmingly backed Obama and will obviously do so again in South Carolina, no matter how loudly former President Clinton protests. So why is he making such a fuss over a contest he knows he’s going to lose?
Precisely because he is going to lose it. If Hillary loses South Carolina and the defeat serves to demonstrate Obama’s ability to attract a bloc vote among black Democrats, the message will go out loud and clear to white voters that this is a racial fight. It’s one thing for polls to show, as they now do, that Obama beats Hillary among African-Americans by better than 4-to-1 and Hillary carries whites by almost 2-to-1. But most people don’t read the fine print on the polls. But if blacks deliver South Carolina to Obama, everybody will know that they are bloc-voting. That will trigger a massive white backlash against Obama and will drive white voters to Hillary Clinton.
Obama has done everything he possibly could to keep race out of this election. And the Clintons attracted national scorn when they tried to bring it back in by attempting to minimize the role Martin Luther King Jr. played in the civil rights movement. But here they have a way of appearing to seek the black vote, losing it, and getting their white backlash, all without any fingerprints showing. The more President Clinton begs black voters to back his wife, and the more they spurn her, the more the election becomes about race -and Obama ultimately loses.
Because they have such plans for South Carolina, the Clintons were desperate to win in Nevada. They dared not lose two primaries in a row leading up to Florida. But now they can lose South Carolina with impunity, having won in Nevada.
But don’t look for them to walk away from South Carolina. Their love needs to appear to have been unrequited by the black community for their rejection to seem so unfair that it triggers a white backlash. In this kind of ricochet politics, you have to lose openly and publicly in order to win the next round. And since the next round consists of all the important and big states, polarizing the contest into whites versus blacks will work just fine for Hillary.
Of course, this begs the question of how she will be able to attract blacks after beating Obama. Here the South Carolina strategy also serves its purpose. If she loses blacks and wins whites by attacking Obama, it will look dirty and underhanded to blacks. She’ll develop a real problem in the minority community. But if she is seen as being rejected by minority voters in favor of Obama after going hat in hand to them and trying to out-civil rights Obama, blacks will even likely feel guilty about rejecting Hillary and will be more than willing to support her in the general election.