If Hillary had hoped to put a South Carolina loss in a racial-politics box, she may have failed. If she set out to lose South Carolina as badly as possible, she certainly succeeded. Barack Obama garnered well over twice as many votes than Hillary and three times as many as John Edwards in easily beating both. He also derided the attacks coming his way from the Clinton campaign in his victory speech:
Barack Obama routed Hillary Rodham Clinton in the racially charged South Carolina primary Saturday night, regaining campaign momentum in the prelude to a Feb. 5 coast-to-coast competition for more than 1,600 Democratic National Convention delegates.
"The choice in this election is not about regions or religions or genders," Obama said at a boisterous victory rally. "It's not about rich versus poor, young versus old and it's not about black versus white. It's about the past versus the future." ....
The exit polls showed the economy was the most important issue in the race. About one quarter picked health care. And only one in five said it was the war in Iraq, underscoring the extent to which the once-dominant issue has faded in the face of financial concerns.
The strategy coming out of the Clinton campaign attempted to pre-spin the apparent loss as an election that broke along racial lines. With this broad gap, that will be a lot harder to do. The black vote accounts for half of all South Carolina Democrats, but the span of his victory shows that he reached across ethnic lines. According to CNN's exit poll, he won a majority of non-black votes in the 18-29-year-old demographic, and a quarter of non-black votes in two other demographic age groups. Hillary didn't win pluralities among non-black age demographics; Edwards actually did better than Hillary did in these categories.
Obama, in his victory speech, took special aim at the Clintons. While saying that they needed to respect their competitors, he clearly relished prevailing over all of the attacks in the past week. He claimed the triumph as a vindication of a new approach to politics, one that didn't include ridiculing someone for noting that Republicans had ideas of their own even while not endorsing them. Anyone watching the speech understood exactly what he meant, and the message was clear -- the Clintons came up empty.
How badly does this damage Hillary? She still has a lead in most Super-Dee-Duper Tuesday states, including the important coastal states. She has more superdelegates as well, so a thin and temporary lead in delegates won't make a big deal of difference. However, the more times he beats her, the thinner that veneer of inevitability becomes. If John Edwards gets a clue and drops out of the race, Hillary could be in serious trouble, especially if he does so before February 5th. She may not be able to beat Obama head to head, if the Clintons continue to alienate potential supporters.
UPDATE: Another interesting data point from CNN's exit polls: Bill Clinton didn't help. Obama won 48% of the vote for those who said that Bill Clinton's campaigning was important to them, while Hillary only took 37%. (Obama took 62% of those who said it wasn't important.) That statistic strongly implies that Bill Clinton's negativity made a difference, and that it turned off half of those affected by it to any significant degree. That should inform the Clinton campaign about what Bill's role should be in the future.
CNN's analysts point out another way to look at this election: 73% of South Carolina Democrats voted against Hillary.