Notebook: South Carolina primary
My goal was to make it down to Florence by 6:20 pm, when Sen. Obama was slated to speak at the city's convention center. I had known for a couple weeks that I was assigned to Darlington County, near Florence, but I didn't find out until Thursday that Sen. Obama was going to be speaking there the same night I was planning on driving down. So I resisted the temptation to stop and visit my family in Raleigh on the way down (and the temptation to stop at South of the Border, though I did visit Pedro, et. al. on the way home). By ten to six, I was waiting in line outside the Florence Convention Center. It was a lot colder than I had expected it to be, and the thing I kept hearing parents tell their kids in line was that the wait in the cold was worth it because "this is something you'll be able to tell your grandkids about."
There were several people selling buttons, and the one that stood out was a big green button with a shamrock that read "Irish-Americans for Obama." (I thought to myself that I should modify one to say "Scotch-Irish Americans for Obama," to help promote my Barack Obama-Jim Webb dream ticket, but more on that in another post).
Once we got inside, the room filled up pretty quickly, and the different parts of the crowd began to compete with each other in chants of "Fired Up! Ready to Go!" (which I later realized has become a semi-official Obama chant). When Obama came on, he seemed a little tired at first, and I worried that his speech might not match the crowd's anticipation. Within a couple minutes, he proved me wrong, and gave a typically moving speech.
I was assigned to a polling location in Hartsville, which is about 20 miles northwest of Florence, in Darlington County. I left the hotel in Florence around 6:15 AM, in order to get there before the precincts opened at 7:00. On the way to the old high school gym that would serve as the polling location, I passed the world-famous Darlington Speedway, although it was still too dark to really see the whole thing.
The chapel of a Hartsville funeral home served as the Obama campaign's headquarters in the town. As soon as I walked in, the local campaign director asked me to help him move a long, heavy table with rollers on its legs. "Oh, is this? . . ." I paused. He finished my thought: "Yeah, this is one of the things you move a coffin around on!"
We laughed, but starting the day off in a chapel lent a sense of seriousness to the morning, and although no one was going to point it out, the painting of "The Last Supper" with a black Jesus and black disciples underscored the historic nature of Obama's campaign. It reminded me of an argument I had gotten into with someone in DC a few months before, when I had said that to Martin Luther King, politics and faith were one in the same. She had said something like "Martin Luther King was about social justice - don't bring religion into this." I grabbed a handful of honey buns and Nabs from the huge Sam's box on the front pew, and as I headed down the aisle, I wondered if she would say that to the folks around here.
Darlington County is roughly 44% black, and I would guess that the precincts comprising my polling location were 80-90% black. Predominately black precincts have often been the target of voter intimidation/suppression tactics, including the illegal use of challenges. In South Carolina, one's right to vote can be challenged by poll watchers representing a campaign, or even by another voter (typically a challenge would be on the grounds of one's registration in the precinct, age, or some other similar requirement). One can imagine how the challenge process can get ugly, but fortunately, there were no major reports of intimidation, at my precincts or in the primary overall (the second page of this article discusses this in the context of the primary).
Shortly after the precincts closed, the early exit polls were indicating that there was a huge turnout, and that things looked good for Obama. The big question I had was whether white South Carolinians would hold up their end of the bargain. Some of the polls leading up to the primary had projected that Obama would get as little as 10% of the white vote, which would allow the Clintons to frame an Obama win as being merely the result of racial bloc voting (see the Dick Morris article predicting this tactic). Regardless of how anyone tries to spin it, one thing I noticed over the course of the weekend was that almost all of the black volunteers I spoke to were as excited about Obama's ability to transcend race as they were about the fact that he is black.
By the time I got back to the funeral home, media outlets were reporting that Obama had done better than expected among white voters, especially young whites. We started doing the math: 80% of the black vote means about 40% of the total primary vote, and 25% of the white vote meant another 12-13% of the primary vote. This was starting to sound like a landslide!
Several of us met up with the regional Obama campaign staffers, who were celebrating the win at a bar in Florence. It was great to meet a lot of the people who had spearheaded the local campaign, and some other volunteers who had converged from all over (DC, Houston, NYC, etc.). I had a particularly interesting conversation with a campaign worker who had mentioned that she was Jewish. I brought up the recent skepticism in the media over whether Obama could gain the support of Jewish voters, to which she smiled and responded "Oh, don't worry about us!" To the contrary, she said, a number Obama's campaign staffers were Jewish, and she didn't anticipate any problems with gaining support among the Jewish community.
The first thing I did when I woke up was to Google "barbecue Florence SC" on my BlackBerry, and I got a bunch of recommendations for Rogers BBQ, where, as it turns out, John McCain had recently held a fundraiser. I definitely recommend their buffet, especially their unique bitter-tasting, burgundy-colored pork barbecue, which is like nothing I've ever tasted. Based on subsequent research, it appears that the barbecue had been cooked in a vinegar-and-pepper sauce, which is common in the Pee Dee area of SC, but not North of the Border (I'm primarily an Eastern North Carolina BBQ fan).
As I headed back up to DC, I realized I didn't have an Obama sticker on my car, and I was seeing so many Obama and Clinton folks on I-95 that I felt had to join in and show my colors. So when I took at pit stop at South of the Border, I taped a "Stand For Change" sign I had gotten at the rally to my rear passenger-side door window (see picture). Obama's win in South Carolina was something I'll never forget, and I have a feeling I'll be telling stories about how I was there for a long, long time.