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The Obama Effect

WEEKS SUCH as the one just past — in which I am still mired as I write this — do not lend themselves to complete, extended thought of the sort that leads to coherent columns.

But when have I ever let that stop me?

We’re in the middle of candidate interviews for the June primaries — 50-plus meetings with folks seeking their respective parties’ nominations for the state House, state Senate, county councils, sheriff, clerk of court, and on and on ....

But as disparate as these candidates and their goals and issues may be, sometimes themes emerge, or seem to emerge.

Here’s one, which I’ll call The Obama Effect, just to have something trendy to call it.

There’s nothing new about this effect, of course, and I certainly didn’t discover it. But I have been tracking it since last July, when I wrote a column headlined “Obama, the young, and the magic of Making a Difference.” I wasn’t sure what I was describing then. I’m not sure now, either. It’s an amorphous phenomenon, or set of phenomena — but one of considerable force in spite of, or perhaps because of, that lack of easy definition.

It’s the thing that led to nearly half a million people coming out to vote in the S.C. Democratic presidential primary in January, which is all the more extraordinary when you recall that there had been a very hotly contested Republican presidential primary just the week before, and that no one who voted in that was allowed to vote in the other. The turnout on Jan. 26 was double that of the 2004 Democratic primary. Republicans, after 20 years of touting the growing pull of their party, actually saw participation decline from their last contested presidential primary. This is less because of a decline in GOP fortunes in the state, and more because of an indefinable something over on the Democratic side.

Detractors mock the phenomenon for the very fact that it is so hard to describe. “Hope” for what? they say. What kind of “Change”? Satirists have no end of fun mocking media types — people who make their livings describing things — for failing to explain why they’re going gaga. None of that diminishes the power of the thing.

Still, I thought it had rolled on to other states beginning in February. But then we started these interviews, and I began to see a certain something — something I couldn’t quite put my finger on — cropping up on the county and legislative district levels.

We’re used to candidates coming in with definite reasons for seeking office. Challengers speak of their enthusiasm for a certain cause, or describe in excruciating detail their indignation over having sought help from their representative and found him or her insufficiently responsive (a very common reason to run for office). Incumbents speak of needing just a little more time to accomplish that same thing they wanted to accomplish the last time they ran, and the time before that. And so on. After a few election cycles, you can finish the candidates’ sentences for them.

But this time, we met some first-time candidates in Democratic primaries who didn’t seem to have a particular reason for filing, beyond a newfound enthusiasm for public service itself. Their reason for being in our interview room was ill-defined. I wrote a summary of one such interview on my blog, which led a curmudgeonly reader to complain that “those bromides tell us exactly nothing” as to what this candidacy was about. But I had included this clue: a quote from said candidate to the effect that this was “an exciting year, an historical year” to get involved....

Not long after that interview, Associate Editor Cindi Ross Scoppe wondered aloud why some of these folks were running, and I ventured the hunch that this was a case of The Obama Effect. She said I had no objective, quantifiable reason for saying that. And she was right, of course.

A few days later, Richland County Council Chairman Joe McEachern — who’s running for the seat currently held by Rep. John Scott, who’s running for one held by Sen. Kay Patterson — made no bones about it: There was an Obama Factor pulling in folks who had never previously given any consideration to public life. He and other more experienced hands were fielding a lot of questions from enthusiastic people wanting to know exactly how to go about getting involved.

All of the aforementioned candidates have been black Democrats. But it fell to a white Democrat, Rep. Jimmy Bales, to spell out the thing more overtly. He said he’d like to see his party increase its numbers in the S.C. House, and “this might be the year this happens.”

“If Obama were the nominee,” he said on May 1, “and if Democrats would come together... I believe that he would come close to carrying this state,” and would in addition have the effect of increasing the number of Democratic S.C. House members — not so much to a majority, but to a less anemic minority. Say, from 51 members out of 124 to 58. He says this dispassionately, calmly, without any signs of hysteria. It’s just that the candidacy of Barack Obama has made some previously unlikely things seem attainable.

No, I can’t prove it. Nor can I quantify it. But there’s something there, and it’s happening down on a much more local level than has been widely documented so far.

For more vague reflections on things I can’t quite define, please visit thestate.com/bradsblog/.

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