The Democrats had seemed rather pleased with themselves so far this campaign season for having managed to avoid one of their typical self-immolating fights. Instead, once Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had each taken an early contest, we heard a lot of self-satisfied gloss about how the party would make history with the first female presidential nominee or the first minority one.
Then the race moved from the monochrome fields of Iowa and the overwhelmingly white exurb known as New Hampshire into Nevada and South Carolina. The Nevada population is one-quarter Hispanic, and typically about half of South Carolina Democratic-primary voters are African American. Within hours of reaching those states, the contest between Clinton and Obama acquired a racial text and subtext that posed dangers for both candidates. The spat subsided only after the candidates stepped in to defuse the tension and return to the sort of post-identity campaigns that both will need to run in the general election.
South Carolina, where a Confederate battle flag still flies on the capitol grounds off Gervais Street and where dying but persistent de facto segregation still divides church life and civic organizations, will be a test of just how deeply the skirmish has resonated with voters. Sixty years after South Carolina governor (later Senator) Strom Thurmond created the Dixiecrats, rupturing a Democratic Party he found insufficiently racist, the state is poised to remind Americans how far they have come--or how much further they still have to go.
In a contest pitting the son of a Kenyan against the wife of the man Toni Morrison suggested was "the first black President," it was perhaps inevitable that a battle over race would be joined at some point. It took the form of an arch and insidery back-and-forth between the candidates over the role that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. played in the civil rights movement.
On Jan. 7, Hillary Clinton said--in a comment highly uncontroversial from a historical perspective but highly inadvisable from a political one--that King's dreams couldn't have become law without the executive and legislative leadership of Lyndon Johnson. She was trying to make a point that forms the central claim of her candidacy: that Obama lacks the experience to effect change in Washington. Stung, Obama surrogates seized the irresistible opportunity to say Clinton was belittling King. Then the Clinton camp, not atypically, overreacted. The New York Senator complained that when Obama defended the value of hopeful rhetoric by referencing King, he was inappropriately comparing himself with the civil rights leader, and it was he, therefore, who didn't adequately appreciate King's unique historical role.
The fuss descended to a tawdry nadir on Jan. 13, when black entertainment baron and Clinton supporter Robert Johnson obliquely reminded a South Carolina audience that Obama has admitted using drugs. "Obama was doing something in the neighborhood that I won't say what he was doing--but he said it in his book," Johnson said with a smirk. (He later claimed, unconvincingly, that he was referring to Obama's "time spent as a community organizer.")
Sensing that the media conflagration served little purpose for either candidate, Clinton and Obama called a truce in time for a televised debate on Jan. 15 with the third major Democratic candidate, John Edwards. Polls suggest Clinton will lose the Democratic primary in South Carolina to Obama, but she would prefer to come in a respectable second, particularly among African Americans, who will be important for any Democratic nominee in November.
While South Carolina Democrats of all races have doubtless thought about the racial implications of this election, on the ground--in the churches and salons and restaurants the candidates visit--very few voters will actually base their decision on race. Indeed, what all candidates are learning--or will soon learn--is that African-American voters can't be neatly classified or treated as a homogeneous voting bloc. Nearly 80% of blacks vote Democratic, but Republican candidates have managed to make intermittent gains over the past decade. Many African-American voters--including Democrats--line up with conservatives on social and cultural issues. And in poll after poll, black voters say they would not cast their vote for a black presidential candidate solely because of the color of his skin. That's in part because the very definition of race has become more complex: according to a Pew Research Center poll of African Americans taken in November, nearly 40% said they don't believe blacks should be thought of as a single race.
Many of those currents are evident in South Carolina. Over the course of several days in the midst of the Clinton-Obama fracas, I met a number of well-connected black Democrats in the state who were unfamiliar with the details of the controversy. Xavier Starkes, 45, a trial attorney, and Kia Anderson, 35, a state employee whose mother is a Clinton activist, were in fact slightly miffed at the (very white) notion that as African Americans they would cast their votes entirely on the basis of skin color or a media squabble.
Starkes leans toward fellow trial lawyer Edwards, with Obama a close second, and Anderson remains undecided between Clinton and Obama. (The Real Clear Politics average of polls taken between Jan. 1 and Jan. 13 has Obama at 42%, Clinton at 32% and Edwards at 16%.)
And yet Obama's race tugs at them, in the gut. For African-American women, however, Clinton also holds appeal--both as the first potential female President and a longtime activist for equal rights. African-American women will probably make up the largest single voting group in the primary, if you extrapolate from the 2004 primary returns. "This particular election is kind of hardest, if I can put it that way, for the African-American female," says Jennette Williams, 55, a black Georgia public-schools employee who took her grandson Dimitiras, 5, to hear Clinton speak in Columbia. Williams plans to vote in the Feb. 5 Georgia primary, but she is undecided between Clinton and Obama. "You have this opportunity to see either the first woman or the first African American."