Buoyed by an overwhelming edge among African-American voters, Barack Obama cruised to victory over Hillary Clinton in the Mississippi primary, posting a 60-37 percent margin and teeing up a crucial showdown in Pennsylvania, the next major contest in the quest for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Obama, seeking to become America's first African-American president, has enjoyed strong support from black voters throughout the nominating process. But here in the Delta Tuesday night the racial divide was especially stark. According to exit polls, Obama outpolled Clinton among black voters 91-9. White voters preferred Clinton by a slightly narrower 72-21 percent margin.
If the outcome and the racial math were predictable (African-Americans accounted for roughly half the Democratic primary vote), Mississippians did provide a few modest surprises at the ballot box. Exit polls showed some 59 percent of voters disapproved of Clinton's attack ads—part of a strategy that was widely viewed as helping her defeat Obama in the key March 4 contests in Ohio and Texas. And Obama beat Clinton 55-45 among voters who considered the economy the most important factor in the contest—an outcome Obama's team hopes is a harbinger of things to come.
"What we have tried to do is steadily make sure we are making the case for change across the country," Obama told CNN, in relating the tales of economic hardship he said he'd heard as he stumped through the state. "The stories I heard [in Mississippi] are the stories I hear all across the country."
Obama's economic message is critical if he is to erase Clinton's substantial lead in the polls in Pennsylvania. His aides know the battle there is uphill, citing "demographic" factors and the powerful machine of the state's governor, Ed Rendell, a prominent Clinton supporter. Clinton has been spending much of her time there since her March 4 wins; she left daughter Chelsea as the family member in charge of helping to turn out the vote in Mississippi down the home stretch. Obama, by contrast, is taking a more multipronged approach, dividing his time between the Keystone State and Indiana and North Carolina—two other delegate-rich states up for grabs.
Obama's victories helped blunt Clinton's momentum a bit—but then, momentum has been an elusive asset throughout the Democratic marathon. Clinton had kept Obama on the defensive over the last week, over NAFTA and harsh characterizations of Clinton by one of his aides (who has since resigned).
But Obama has been battling back—with the help of a key Clinton supporter. In an interview with a California Web site called the Daily Breeze, former Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro made a statement that threatened New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's prostitute-driven dominance of the political news. "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," she said. "And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept." Obama's supporters seized on the remarks and demanded a full denunciation from Clinton, who said she disagreed with the comments—an insufficiently strong stance, in Team Obama's eyes. Ferraro fanned the flames of the controversy further by suggesting that she was being faulted for the remarks only because of her race. "I really think they're attacking me because I'm white." (It was not the first time Ferraro has courted controversy with racially charged remarks. In 1988, four years after she made history on the Democratic ticket, she dismissed Jesse Jackson's presidential run and the easy treatment she felt he was getting from the press. "If Jesse Jackson were not black, he wouldn't be in the race," she said at the time.)
At this rate it will be a long six weeks. The length of the campaign ahead—without any new election results—demands something more than rallies, roundtables, town halls and dueling conference calls. The Obama campaign is already deeply engaged in a planning process that includes, in the words of Obama's senior strategist David Axelrod, "some wrinkles to keep it interesting."
Amid the public war of words, the real struggle continues behind the scenes: for the fealty of the all-important superdelegates. Since Feb. 5 the Obama campaign has steadily closed the gap on Clinton's lead among party insiders. Obama's aides are still hopeful that they can win the commitments of enough superdelegates to reach the magic number to clinch the nomination well before the party's convention in August. It will not be an easy feat. The Clinton team is playing up the fact that its candidate has won many of the biggest states in the country—and the ones that will be essential to a Democratic victory in the fall. Obama forces counter with his edge in the popular vote to date, the number of states in his column, and his edge in pledged delegates. The superdelegates will help decide which argument carries the day in Denver.