When principles aren't enough

Like the poor people he talks about, John Edwards has been forgotten by a lot of Democrats. Is his next role to play king- or queenmaker for the party?

By Thomas F. Schaller
January 25, 2008 5:53PM (UTC)
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"You can't just think you're voting in this primary on Saturday and then it's all over -- it is not all over," John Edwards told a crowd of supporters yesterday in this town of 10,000 just a few miles from the border of North Carolina, which he represented in the Senate. "We've got a long way to go ... and you can't just nominate somebody who can't win in November."

Unfortunately for Edwards, though he has been campaigning feverishly through South Carolina's small towns all week, by the time the 2008 Democratic primary calendar reached the Palmetto State, the field of contenders battling for the nomination had effectively narrowed to two. Edwards fought back against the perception almost plaintively during Monday night's Democratic presidential debate in Myrtle Beach: "What I want to say first is, are there three people in this debate, not two?" In the span of three weeks, Edwards has plummeted from a narrow second-place finish ahead of Hillary Clinton in Iowa, to a distant third in New Hampshire, to a single-digit third place finish in Nevada. His meager 4 percent of the vote last week in the Nevada caucuses in a three-way Democratic contest was 10 points lower than Rep. Ron Paul's 14 percent showing in the Republicans' five-way race. He is running third in South Carolina, far behind Barack Obama.


According to some of the most recent polls, he is within a few points of Hillary Clinton and could conceivably claim second. That would be a blow to the Clinton campaign, but would a distant second-place finish in the state where he was born -- and where he beat John Kerry in 2004 -- really bring critical momentum to Edwards? After the turbulence of the early states, anything seems possible. But the truth for Edwards is that, after more than four years and two tries, the remaining question for his presidential candidacy is how his continued presence in the race will affect the contest between Clinton and Obama.

John Edwards has run a principled campaign. He talks about poverty even though poor people can afford to give him little money and turn out to vote at low rates, especially in primaries. His "Back Home, Back Roads Barnstorm" campaign this week took him by bus from one small, rural area of South Carolina to the next, even though small cities like Lancaster, Seneca and Greenwood are not nearly as vote-rich as Greenville, Columbia or Charleston. Whatever else might be said of him, if Edwards suffers a crushing, third-place defeat on Saturday, nobody can say he abandoned his core campaign themes or target audiences. One could argue that his rhetoric, his stance on the issues, has slowed Clinton and Obama's rush to the center, has increased their focus on economic issues.

"I've seen the struggles that are happening in rural America, in smaller towns all across the South," said Edwards, to about 125 supporters packed into a small community center in Bennettsville, a cotton and tobacco town in the Pee Dee region, an hour and a half northeast of Columbia. "And the truth is that much of this part of America has been forgotten." If the people Edwards is talking to this week have been forgotten, so too has his campaign by most of the media -- as he and his staffers repeatedly complain. Aside from CNN, the half-empty media risers in Bennettsville featured no other national television cameras; the traveling print press has dwindled down to a few wire services. More than half the media following Edwards this week are from state or local outlets. From Jan. 14 to Jan. 20, Edwards just edged out the flailing Rudy Giuliani in media coverage, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism's Campaign Coverage Index.


Embracing the role of true-blue underdog, Edwards took a few shots at Sen. Hillary Clinton's decision to more or less abandon the Palmetto State, leaving her husband and daughter to campaign on her behalf in the final week. "It is one thing to fly into South Carolina from someplace else, give a speech, go to a debate, and then fly back out," he said. "It's a very different thing to have lived here, to have grown up in this part of the country and understand in a personal way what's happening in your lives. I do ... and the reason it matters is because if you have a president who understands your way of life and cares about the way you live, the odds go up tremendously that they're actually going to fight for you."

Colorfully nicknamed political advisors Dave "Mudcat" Saunders and former Georgia Rep. Ben "Cooter" Jones are traveling with Edwards in the final days before Saturday's do-or-die primary. In Bennettsville, Jones drew a comparison between the sitcom that made him famous and the current campaign. "I wish the world were like Hazzard County," said Jones, who starred in the popular "Dukes of Hazzard" during the late 1970s and early 1980s. "Because the good guys always won, nobody got hurt, and the Duke brothers always made the right moral choice."

If only Edwards' path to the White House were so simple and formulaic. Given the economic situation in the country and the power of Edwards' campaign themes -- delivered as they are by an articulate, attractive, Southern son who ably employs emotional stories of uninsured or displaced Americans to humanize his message -- why haven't more rank-and-file Democrats rallied behind Edwards?


First, there is the matter of race and gender. In 2004, almost three-quarters of all votes John Kerry received in the general election were cast either by women or non-whites. For all the talk about the historic significance of having a racial or gender minority seriously contending for the Democratic nomination this year, numerically speaking the minority candidate among the three major contenders this cycle was the white guy. On his own home turf, the South, whites have largely fled to the GOP, and he is competing for votes with a black man in states where the Democratic base is a third or half black. (Bennettsville, where he stumped Wednesday, is two-thirds black, but his audience was 80 percent white.) "Edwards has no appeal at all among minority voters and they're half the vote," pollster J. Brad Coker told McClatchy Newspapers on Thursday, after recent polls showed Edwards closing the gap a little. "That limits his ability to move up. He's not going to take black votes away from Obama, and not that many white women from Hillary." At one point during Monday night's debate, the audience interrupted Obama with spontaneous laughter when the Illinois senator, after stating that he and Clinton wanted African-Americans and women to vote for them for reasons other than those of identity, turned toward the slighted Edwards and said, "Same way that John, I think, he wants white males to vote for..."

Second, there is the matter of the primary calendar, which combined with the nature of the competition stacks the deck against Edwards. He had perhaps his best shot in Iowa, where his message resonated and the caucus system increased the percentage of Edwards-friendly party activists among voters. But Michigan, where his economic appeal might have struck sparks, became a non-contest because of a fight between state and national party officials, and two other big Rust Belt prizes, Ohio and Pennsylvania, won't vote till long after Super Tuesday.


Edwards' third problem was self-inflicted. At some point after his 2004 campaign he forgot that to be successful, an us-vs.-them message must place more emphasis on building "us" than tearing down "them." His "Two Americas" speech four years ago worked better because he dichotomized the country into mutually exclusive groups -- the rich and powerful to be reviled, and "the rest of us" with whom Edwards developed a shared identity. This time around, Edwards talks a lot more about the bad guys, from pharmaceutical companies to insurers.

Ironically, Edwards' fourth and possibly fatal flaw is rooted in his courageous transformation from a centrist Democratic senator last decade into a populist presidential candidate this decade. Though it's convenient to dismiss him as a populist-come-lately, Edwards embodies the process of ideological introspection and conversion many Democrats have experienced during George W. Bush's presidency. That metamorphosis creates a certain dissonance. Clinton defends the Senate record she compiled during Bush's first term, Obama doesn't have one -- and Edwards publicly regrets some of his. Wisconsin's Sen. Russ Feingold recently called his former Senate colleague the "most problematic" of the major contenders because Edwards voted for the Patriot Act, No Child Left Behind, the China trade deal and the Iraq war, "but campaigns against" them now. "He uses my voting record exactly as his platform, even though he had the opposite voting record," said Feingold, who is struggling to decide between supporting Clinton or Obama.

In sum, 2008 is an uncomfortable year for John Edwards. Clinton is a woman and Obama an African-American in a multiracial party whose highest elected official is a woman. Clinton and Obama talk about change more in terms of what the good guys should do rather than why the bad guys should be run out of town. Clinton stands for a restoration of the Democratic politics of the 1990s, and Obama presents himself as a new-era, post-partisan Democrat. As the rural white underdog who abandoned his centrist posture to refashion himself as a populist anti-corporate bulldog, Edwards will be remembered as the 2008 contender forever in search of a winning coalition that simply wasn't there.


How, then, do Edwards' fortunes affect the Clinton-Obama matchup? A stubborn Edwards promises to persevere regardless of the numbers that matter -- national polls, primary night results, or cash-on-hand totals -- and his determination to plow forward could cause headaches for both Clinton and Obama.

"Edwards' decline reflects the fact that most Democratic voters perceive the nomination contest to have come down to two candidates: Clinton and Obama," says American University political scientist David Lublin, an expert on Southern politics. "But the Democratic delegate selection process gives little incentive for Edwards to get out as long as he gets above the critical 15 percent of the vote. If the contest between Clinton and Obama stays very close, it is conceivable that Edwards could play the role of king- or queenmaker."

So will Edwards crown a king or a queen? "Both Clinton and Obama are convinced Edwards is costing them support. That's the beauty of trying to game out the Edwards factor," says NBC political director and television analyst Chuck Todd. "One of them is going to be right: Clinton's folks believe Edwards' rural, blue-collar supporters will end up in her camp, while the Obama folks believe once you've gone anti-Clinton, you don't go back. In South Carolina, it appears Edwards' share of the white vote is hurting Clinton, not Obama. But in other states, Edwards is probably hurting Obama."


When I asked Clinton advisor Doug Hattaway after Clinton's Tuesday press conference in D.C. if he thought the former first lady would benefit disproportionately from a windfall of former Edwards supporters, he was very circumspect. "I think it's hard to say," Hattaway replied. "I think the voters will make up their minds based on the candidates' standing, and I think it's pretty hard to determine which way people are going to go." When I pressed him to speculate on what specific demographic subgroups among Edwards backers might break toward Hillary and why, he put up his hand. "I'm not going there -- I'm not in the prognostication business." Though some Clinton insiders believe they will benefit from Edwards' abandoning the race, they are being extremely careful not to antagonize any potential future supporters that could drift their way as Edwards' chances fade.

The Obama campaign believes otherwise, and points to a recent Field Poll in California showing that Obama is the second choice for almost three times as many Edwards voters as Clinton. But the percentages -- 29 percent of Edwards' voters leaning toward Obama, 11 percent preferring Clinton -- are low, reflecting the fact that most Edwards supporters don't know where to turn if their guy continues to fade. "He's for the little man in America, and that's the backbone of this country," Edward Hodge, a white 66-year-old retired railroad worker from rural McColl, told me when I asked him why he supports Edwards. "If he doesn't win, I haven't decided who to vote for." On the decisions of such conflicted voters the outcome of the 2008 Democratic primary -- and quite possibly the general election -- may yet turn.

Thomas F. Schaller

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Hillary Rodham Clinton John Edwards