For the second time, we have a victory in a Democratic primary where a candidate won by a margin well beyond what the polls predicted.
Today, on the television gobble-fests, we'll be given reason after reason why. In every case—mark my words—the focus will be on the leaders, on what they have done or haven't done. On strategy, on manipulating the voters one way or another.
Yet the real story of South Carolina isn't the candidates at all.
It's the voters.
Just as it was in New Hampshire.
On the issues, on the substance of their campaigns, there isn't (in the eye of the voter—not of the pundit) much difference between the three Democratic front-runners. They have all come around to reflect the demand for an end to the occupation of Iraq; for a foreign policy that reflects the positive and cooperative way Americans view themselves, one that rejects the constant belligerence of the past seven years; for health-care reform; and for economic policies that reflect the needs and desires of the vast middle class and not simply the extremely rich.
With their candidates now reflecting voter demands, the voters are moving on, asking even more of them. When they get it, they reward the candidates. When they don't, they punish.
Hillary Clinton evinced a human and responsive side, those last days in New Hampshire, and drew people into the polling booth who otherwise might have sat the primary out. That was the real story of New Hampshire: Barack Obama's support didn't go down: Clinton's went up. Why? Not because she was convincing anyone of anything, but because she was acting as a person and not as a leader.
The voters of the Democratic party are showing that they are sick of being “led.” Of being manipulated. They want a candidate who will respond to them, and not tell them—which is why they don't mind the vagueness of some of, say, Obama's positions. They'll tell him later exactly what they want. Right now, it's OK, as long as he makes it clear he will respond.
The irony of the South Carolina vote is that Clinton, after claiming to have found her voice in New Hampshire, didn't really get it. It wasn't her voice that anyone cared about, but the people's. If she had understood that, she wouldn't have immediately begun speaking to the voters again, trying to manipulate them. She would have continued speaking about herself and her own feelings, about her “willingness” to listen and consider.
She didn't do that, but once more treated potential voters as though they are stupid and malleable, as though they can be swayed more by petty bickering. She did that in the face of all evidence to the contrary, in the face of primary voters who had already told her they want that Clinton who cares, not the one who schemes.
Patrick Healy, writing in today's New York Times, points out that:
Last week, Clinton advisers believed Mr. Clinton was rattling Mr. Obama and drawing his focus away from his message of moving beyond the politics of the 1990’s and the Bush presidency. The results on Saturday indicated, instead, that voters were impressed with Mr. Obama’s mettle and agreed with him that the Clintons ran an excessively negative campaign here.
The Clinton team was again making the mistake on concentrating on a rival and not on the voters—and they paid for it. Just as they benefited in New Hampshire, when Clinton managed, for a moment, to forget about the “enemy.”
Obama seems to have learned this lesson. If she does not, Clinton will lose the nomination to him. For, more than anything else, the Democratic voters want a president who listens to them and responds, not someone with a grand plan or belief—they've seen enough of than with the neo-cons—but someone who will listen to the people and do what they want.
They had now said this forcefully twice. They shouldn't need to say it a third time.