Edwards the Invisible, Edwards the Vulnerable

A month ago I wrote about how John Edwards could pivot from attacking Hillary Clinton to taking advantage of the frustration that had been building among Barack Obama's supporters because of his perceived lack of "fight."

Since then, a lot has happened in the Democratic presidential race. Hillary Clinton has not had a single good week of press since the debate in Philadelphia. Some of her problems were of her own creation, such as how flummoxed she became over the driver's licenses for illegal immigrants question. Others were unnecessary distractions from her campaign, such as the revelation that one of her staffers in Iowa was responsible for the rumor spreading over e-mail about Obama being a Muslim. And then there was news that was great for America, but not so great for her (or Bush), such as the recent National Intelligence Estimate saying that Iran's nuclear weapons program was much less threatening than Bush had been making it out to be. (The problem for Clinton here is that she was much more hawkish on Iran than her Democratic opponents.)

The other major change has been in the polling--particularly Barack Obama's well-timed ascent. He has pulled ahead of Clinton in Iowa and has significantly closed the gap in New Hampshire. He also now has megastar Oprah Winfrey campaigning for him. And he is being a bit more aggressive in his attacks on Clinton. It seems like Obama has all the momentum and is peaking at the right time.

So what does this mean for Edwards? Well, you may have noticed that while Clinton and Obama continue their back and forth, Edwards has become considerably less aggressive. During the summer, Edwards was adopting a highly combative tone. This coincided with Clinton overtaking Edwards in the Iowa polls. Edwards strategy back then was to throw as many grenades and set as much bait as possible in an attempt to get his rivals to respond to him and generate media coverage for his campaign. However, I thought Edwards sounded angry and petty, and I criticized him for that here.

But now that the race has changed and Clinton is the one who is lobbing stinkbombs at Obama (such as quoting his kindergarten teacher about his presidential ambitions), Edwards has changed his tune. Say goodbye to throwing mud at Clinton, and say hello to sitting on the sidelines with a smile on your face. Edwards is now quietly sitting back and letting his two rivals slug it out. After a long year of campaigning and attacking each other, Edwards is banking on the idea that the voters are growing weary of all the pettiness taking place and will reward Edwards for taking the high road and staying above the fray. The thinking here is that Iowa voters will get sick of the negativity and bickering between Obama and Clinton and throw their support to Edwards. The old political adage, "If A attacks B, then C will be the nominee" seems to be Edwards' strategy here.

But is it enough? It seems that there is a new threat that Edwards may have to worry about. Consider this: The Democratic candidates are all trying to carry a particular mantle. Clinton is the "experience" candidate. Obama is the "change" candidate. Of course, Edwards is also trying to be the "change" candidate, so he is having to compete with the better funded and better polling Obama. This is perhaps his biggest problem. Now it seems like Edwards is trying to run as the "outsider" candidate.

Fair enough.

But what does one make of the Iowa voters who are throwing their support behind Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, and Chris Dodd? According to Real Clear Politics, the average level of combined support for these three candidates in Iowa is from 10-15%. Richardson has been in the low double digits and high single digits for months. Biden is consistently polling outside of the margin of error. And Dodd is pulling in a steady 1-3%, which is higher than Mike Gravel, whose numbers are commonly in asterisk territory. The point I am trying to make here is that there are a lot of voters out there who either 1) are looking for something other than change, experience, or an outsider, or 2) do not believe Clinton, Obama, or Edwards are credible messengers of what they purport to represent. Because of how much the media has concentrated on Clinton, Obama, and Edwards, this 10-15% of Iowa voters is obviously paying enough attention to the race to dig a bit deeper and focus on all the candidates, not just those who are grabbing all the headlines. And if neither Clinton, Obama, nor Edwards has been able to make the sale to these voters yet despite all their campaign ads and all their media coverage, it is quite possible these voters view that trio as a last resort.

What could these 10-15% of voters be looking for if it's not change, exerience, or an outsider? Perhaps not coincidentally, Richardson, Biden, and Dodd each have more government experience than Clinton, Obama, and Edwards combined. And they have impressive records of their legislative accomplishments and a firm grasp of foreign policy. These are not sexy things for a politician to campaign on, but they do form the meat and potatoes of competent governance. Pay special attention to the word competent. That is the one buzzword that hasn't gotten a lot of play in the media. And these three veterans can all run on competence and back it up with their records.

Will Richardson, Biden, and Dodd instruct their supporters to throw their support behind the one of them who emerges as the most viable in the caucuses? If these three camps work together, they could plausibly break the 15% threshhold of viability that is required to survive in the Iowa Democratic caucuses. And of course, there is likely a significant portion of supporters of the top three candidates whose support is soft. Perhaps they are unaware that they have other options. After all, Clinton, Obama, and Edwards have sky high name recognition in Iowa. Richardson, Dodd, and Biden don't. So if one of those veterans emerges in the caucuses, they may be able to peel off more support from the top three candidates than the punditry believes.

As an added bonus, Richardson, Biden, and Dodd could all take the competence mantle and all run on change, experience, and being an outsider. "Change" can be viewed as a change from the incompetent Bush to competent leadership. Their "experience" can easily trump Clinton's. And because they are not the media darlings, they could claim to be "outsiders" in that they are not media flavor of the month politicians.

I wondered in August if John Edwards would make it to Iowa. It looks like he will, but what will happen after that? Should Obama win Iowa, how could Edwards continue? After all, Obama is also running on "change" and being an "outsider." Should Clinton win Iowa, how could anyone continue? And should Edwards win, does anyone think Clinton or Obama is going away? Not with all the money they have! But now what if Richardson, Biden, or Dodd emerges from Iowa with a strong second or third place showing even if Edwards wins? Does he have enough resources and enough political heft to stave off yet another avenue of attack?

Edwards is really in trouble. He's not completely doomed just yet, but he is clearly in the most precarious position of all the Democrats right now. He has no real niche all to himself.

5 comment(s):

Schenck said...

Did you listen to the NPR radio debate? By far the best debate yet. It really captured the competence you speak of in Dodd and especially Biden. (I hope he's Sec. of State; too humiliating to be VP to these newbies.) Too bad nobody really knew about the debate besides those of us who have been closely following the race for months. Transcript here.

I'm opposed to the notion that Obama and Hillary are constantly bickering back and forth, tit for tat, but I am also biased (a committed ABC). I find Hillary's attacks much more personal and character-based, and Obama's tend to be policy and record-based, which is why they aren't dragging each other down - Hillary is only dragging herself down - and Edwards' "c" candidate status (from your a vs b vs c model) will not benefit him. I expect him to (hope he will) throw his support to Obama after February 5th (or earlier if he doesn't get any 1st or 2nd place finishes by then) and bank on a spot in the administration (not VP though).

Go Obama!

(I must love parenthesis)

Anthony Palmer said...

Hi Schenck.

I do agree that Obama is getting the better of Clinton by sticking to the issues in his attacks. Clinton has really taken the low road and is being quite childish in her attacks on him. The biggest worry Clinton has is that she can bleed support faster than she can generate it. Basically, her task is to survive voter attrition long enough to win the nomination. That doesn't sound like a winner's strategy to me.

I haven't heard the NPR debate yet, but I've heard that it was much more substantive. Thanks for the transcript link. I'll check it out!

Amare said...

I think Edwards has his "populist" niche all to himself, aside from being a "change" candidate. Neither Obama nor Clinton is a convincingly populist candidate, so I do think Edwards fills that role, which might explain the fact that he's not really faltering significantly in Iowa polls. I do wish more people would realize that there are more experienced candidates out there, but I have my doubts. Anyway, it will be very interesting to see what's going to happen in Iowa. It's really anybody's game at this point.

Nikki said...

I feel the only candidate that people are really passionate bout right now is Barack Obama.......I think all others are basically looked at as "electibility" over the opposition. John Edwards to me falls into this category. I don't think he is electible. Though I think people who support Obama and are passionate about the person vs. party affiliation, I do think (though some would argue that polls show a shift to the democratic party, which I don't buy) that crossover votes would not happen for him like they did for Bill Clinton and George Bush with moderates. Mike Huckabee would have the same problem. Rudy and John McCain are the only 2 that I can see getting the moderate vote over a dem. I don't know who would carry any crossover votes on the left.
On a seperate vote......I don't ever remember religion being such a major issue in a campaign like it is on the republican side....am I nuts?

Anthony Palmer said...


You are right in that Edwards is running as the populist. I live in SC and he has been flooding the airwaves with campaign ads talking about how his father worked in the mills and how it's time for us to stand up to corporate greed and whatnot. I termed him an "outsider," but maybe "outsider populist" is more accurate since "outsiders" are more along the lines of "let's reform the system" types of politicians.



No, you are right. Religion is a much bigger deal in this campaign, at least on the Republican side. The evangelical wing of the party has a HUGE sway over the GOP. I personally think that turns off a lot of moderates and otherwise conservative voters. I myself am probably closer to the Republicans than the Democrats, but the Christian wing of the party makes me a bit too uncomfortable to ever vote Republican. I'm not hostile to religion (or more accurately, Christianity) at all, but the way these evangelicals demonize people of other faiths ("you're going to Hell!") or people who don't get all passionate about the keeping "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance or school prayer is very disturbing to a lot of people. Mike Huckabee is a member of this wing of the party, but his greatest asset is that he doesn't come across like James Dobson and Tony Perkins.

McCain and Giuliani easily have the most crossover appeal among the Republicans. A lot of Democrats and independents still view McCain as a maverick, and despite Giuliani's rhetoric, Democrats know he's not nearly as conservative as his rhetoric is making him out to be. I'd say that Barack Obama, Bill Richardson and Joe Biden have the most crossover appeal among Democrats. Richardson has the best record on guns of any candidate running, Obama could get suburban White women, and Biden is a strong and competent nonideologue, so I think they can have a lot of appeal.

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