Grass-roots focus fueled Obama's success locally

Voters cast their ballots for the S.C. Democratic presidential primary Saturday at the Boyd Hill Center precinct in Rock Hill.
Voters cast their ballots for the S.C. Democratic presidential primary Saturday at the Boyd Hill Center precinct in Rock Hill.

Seven months ago, an office opened to little fanfare in northwest Rock Hill. Inside, three young staffers quietly went about their tasks -- drawing up lists, making phone calls and posting fliers on behalf of a candidate known by few in these parts.

The modest outpost on Ebenezer Road is one example of the grassroots network that Barack Obama built in big cities and small towns across South Carolina. It's a network that delivered a resounding victory in Saturday's S.C. Democratic primary.

"Like anything, it has to catch fire," said Obama volunteer Hattie Ross of Rock Hill, a retired textile worker. "The last few days, it was chaos around here. The office was just jam-packed full with people from out of state. Everybody was keyed up."

By Saturday night, the headquarters had cleared out for the final time as volunteers headed to Columbia for a victory party. The few who remained said Obama's margin surprised even them.

"I didn't know it would be this big," said Tosha Roberson, a senior at Winthrop University. "Even though we had the little downfall in New Hampshire and Nevada, I knew something good had to come out of South Carolina."

Clinton also opened a local office on Oakland Avenue in downtown. Her local representatives declined to make anyone available for interviews Saturday night.

Robert Hussey, a Clinton volunteer from Rock Hill, told The Herald he was disappointed by the direction of the campaign in recent days. He said Hillary allowed her exchanges with Obama to devolve into too much animosity.

"I felt it was a little too negative on all sides," he said. "They should've stuck more to the issues rather than being negative. I don't think that really benefited anybody in the long haul."

A look inside the numbers

Beyond the Obama storyline, Saturday's turnout revealed a wealth of enthusiasm in the Democratic base. Statewide turnout surpassed 510,000, nearly double that of four years ago and well above last week's Republican turnout of 445,677.

"It really says something about the excitement of our candidates," said York County Democratic Party Chairman Jim Watkins.

In York County, the two parties turned out roughly the same number of voters: 20,783 for the Republicans and 19,075 for the Democrats. However, a stark geographic contrast emerged.

Just a week ago in the Republican primary, four people voted at City Hall, a solidly Democratic precinct thanks to an abundance of African-American voters.

By midmorning on Saturday, more than 100 people had cast ballots. Voters waited throughout the day in lines that stretched into the lobby. The eventual turnout was 521.

From the opposite standpoint, there was one York County precinct where Obama earned no votes: Smyrna, a small community on the far western side. Clinton earned 30 votes there, while Edwards garnered 17.

Meanwhile, Edwards won the Hickory Grove precinct by one vote over Obama (48 to 47).

A reaction to Bill

The lopsided victory for Obama may have been, in part, a reaction to Bill Clinton, said Karen Kedrowski, a political scientist at Winthrop University.

"Masterful campaigner that Bill Clinton is, I think he did some damage," Kedrowski said. "He should never have started talking about false hope. Especially since Obama is borrowing a lot of the same rhetoric that Clinton used in 1992. I don't think it helped at all."

In the past few days, some polls had shown Edwards within range of a second-place finish in his home state, where he won four years ago. It didn't materialize. Edwards finished a distant third, thanks to sentiments like the one voiced by Donna Caskey of Lancaster.

"I think he understands rural America and small towns," said Caskey, who heard Edwards speak at USC Lancaster on Wednesday. "But I'm worried a vote for him is going to be lost. I don't think he's going to make it this time."

The race now shifts to Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, when 22 states will help to clarify a field that has yet to give rise to a front-runner.