Chris Smith: What New York’s Primary Tells Us About the Race to Come

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The glamor and excitement of voting in New York. Photo: Getty Images

Hillary wins big in New York. Ho-hum, right? Yet what happened just below the surface today gives fascinating indications of where the Democratic primary race will be going — not just in the next several hours, as California, the largest Super Tuesday prize, is decided, but over the next months, as this complicated, unpredictable, and bitter nominating contest continues to unfold.

New York has been one of the strongest and most consistently anti-Iraq-war states in the nation. And Obama has recently dialed up his criticism of Clinton’s voting record on Iraq. Yet voters who considered the war the single most important issue in this campaign went 49-47 for Clinton. She’s essentially neutralized the policy issue that’s long been her greatest weakness. The economy, of course, has surpassed Iraq as the dominant national anxiety, and New York voters, on a day the stock market plunged more than 300 points, cited it as the most important issue facing the country by a wide margin. Clinton did even better with those voters, beating Obama 58-39.

Clinton’s biggest bedrocks nationally held her up in New York as well. Women (62-36) and Latinos (74-25) backed her by wide margins. If she can approach those margins in California later tonight, she’ll be in good shape. What worried Clinton’s strategists in New York, however, was that her traditionally strong support among African-American voters would erode drastically in the wake of the racially bitter South Carolina primary. And Obama did indeed score big, winning black voters by 62-36.

Obama grabbed significant numbers of New York delegates — 56 to Clinton's 89, as of this posting — because his campaign showed its growing tactical smarts by targeting five largely black congressional districts in the city — in Harlem, on the Upper West Side, and in central Brooklyn. According to the state’s tangled voting rules, Obama got delegates for reaching at least 15 percent in those areas, and he seems to have easily surpassed that threshold, not just in the city, but in Buffalo and Rochester as well. The big question now is whether California turns out to be more like New York (with Hillary winning big among Latinos and losing big among blacks) or Connecticut (where Obama scored a big upset among Latinos).

So while New York goes into the Clinton “win” column tonight, the state is proving a microcosm of the larger Super Tuesday picture. Obama is racking up the delegates he needs to keep this a neck-and-neck battle. He's also got a substantial fund-raising advantage to press the fight, and the terrain may be shifting in his favor. When MSNBC asked New York voters about candidate “qualities” they considered important, Hillary Clinton won on three counts: empathy, experience, and electability in November. But the remainder of the Democratic primary will be fought on who can bring “needed change” to the country, the core theme of Barack Obama’s campaign. And it’s also the only quality where New Yorkers awarded him a landslide victory. We complain about the endless campaign. But maybe we, like the rest of the country, perversely want it to go on and on. —Chris Smith

For a complete guide to presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.