What South Carolina Means: John Edwards

(This is the first of a three-part series assessing the South Carolina Democratic primary. Today's installment is about John Edwards. I will write about Hillary Clinton on Friday and Barack Obama on Saturday.)


Absent Hillary Clinton, John Edwards was supposed to be the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination this year. A young and affable Southerner who was the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nominee just four years ago, John Edwards should have had the inside track to the nomination. He was a familiar face and emerged from the 2004 campaign less wounded than John Kerry. He had the unique ability to argue that he could win an election in a red state, owned the poverty issue, and had a sharp populist message that resonated with angry and anxious voters who were upset about the lack of affordable health care, the lack of consumer protections, and the perceived exploitation by “big oil companies, big drug companies, and big insurance companies.” And on top of all this, Edwards essentially joined Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin to become Iowa’s third senator by campaigning there nonstop after his 2004 defeat. Seeing that Iowa served as the leadoff contest for the presidential nomination, this race should have been Edwards’ to lose.

That was the thinking in January 2007. One year later, Edwards is struggling to remain relevant. He narrowly avoided third place in Iowa, placed a distant third in New Hampshire, “got his butt kicked” in Nevada, and is trailing badly in his home state of South Carolina despite heavily advertising here.

So what went wrong?

Some of Edwards’ mistakes were tactical ones, such as not putting a swift end to the haircut story or letting his wife Elizabeth overshadow him in her attacks on his rivals. Other mistakes weren’t really mistakes at all, but rather the consequences of unlucky timing. Barack Obama’s candidacy made it too difficult for Edwards to run as an outsider, an agent of change, or a grassroots candidate. This left Edwards struggling to find his niche. And as Obama and Clinton sucked all the oxygen out of the room, there simply wasn’t any room left for Edwards. Iowa was considered his do-or-die state. He barely avoided third place, but spun that as “a victory for change” and soldiered on.

This will almost certainly be Edwards’ last bid for the presidency, so there’s really no good reason why he should just drop out of the race. However, South Carolina is really his last chance. He wasn’t able to win in Iowa despite having campaigned there for more than three years and visiting all 99 of its counties. If he’s not able to win South Carolina, the state where he was born and the state he won in the 2004 primary, then where can he win? Staying in the race after losing South Carolina would confirm Edwards as a loser in the minds of voters and pundits alike. He will be seen as the third man in a two-person race, if he isn’t being viewed that way already. He may argue that winning delegates is important, but if he loses South Carolina, that electoral spigot will probably shut off as well.

John Edwards is way behind Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the South Carolina polls. Unless the polls are completely off (e.g., New Hampshire primary polls redux), the best Edwards could probably hope for is to beat Clinton for second place. Should this happen, Edwards could credibly say he beat Clinton twice and parlay that into a reminder that he is the most electible Democrat. But there are two problems with this: 1) Clinton has too much money and too much organization nationwide to let Edwards stand in her way, and 2) beating Clinton has nothing to do with beating Obama, another well-funded and well-liked candidate who has an impressive campaign apparatus.

However, Edwards does have the advantage of low expectations. He did score a lot of points at the recent debate in Myrtle Beach when he criticized his rivals for spending more time squabbling with each other than addressing the concerns of the voters. Voters who get their news once a day at 6:30 and don’t use or have access to the internet so they can follow the he-said-she-said daily political news cycle may have soured on Obama and Clinton and may decide to reward Edwards for staying above the fray. Of course, astute politicos may remember that Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, and Joe Biden have taken the “I’m the grownup in the room” approach before, but look where that got them. Anyway, because nobody is really expecting Edwards to do well, a stronger than expected finish or even beating one of his rivals outright would be seen as a huge victory and could potentially spur a series of “Is there an Edwards comeback?”-type stories.

Having said that, Edwards will probably be giving his concession and withdrawal speeches in a couple of days, but anything can happen in a voting booth. And for all of his tactical mistakes and the unfavorable position he’s in right now, he is still a formidable and likable candidate who has nothing left to lose. And for that reason, he bears watching.

4 comment(s):

Thomas said...

Anthony, would John Edwards accept the vice-presidency again? If not, does he have a future role in politics?

Btw, I just started a new blog devoted exclusively to politics. It is called Pundits Smundits. I was kind of inspired by what you are doing with this blog.

Anthony Palmer said...

Hi Thomas,

I don't think Edwards would be on the bottom half of anybody's ticket simply because I doubt he'd be interested in running for VP a second time. Also, he didn't bring much to Kerry's ticket last time and failed to carry his home state. So he is probably viewed as being in his political twilight right now.

More pertinent to the current field, Edwards views Clinton as "anti-change," so their messages don't match. She won't ask him to be VP. I don't even think these two camps particularly like each other.

Obama and Edwards would seem to have a more natural alliance, but Obama would really need to add some heft to his ticket to offset the perceptions that he's light on foreign policy and experience in general, especially if the GOP nominates McCain. So I'd expect Obama to choose a veteran senator or some other statesman as his running mate.

Oh, and no Republican will choose Edwards as a running mate, even if they were trying to forge a "unity" ticket. His rhetoric about class, poverty, and corporate greed will be a major turnoff to GOP-leaning voters.


As for your new blog, if you give me the address, I'll take a look at it. I started The 7-10 about a year ago, but it took me a few months before I finally figured out what I wanted to do with it. And I'm still trying to figure it out. Even now I still struggle with how to balance certain elements (is The 7-10 partisan? Is it humorous? Strictly analytical? Left-leaning? Lou Dobbs-esque? A collection of rants? Moderate? Personal? Third person? Focused strictly on South Carolina? Occasionally crude like the Rolling Stone?).

Probably the most difficult thing I've experienced with this blog is simply maintaining the discipline to keep updating it regularly. I took a break from blogging for about three or four weeks last year and lost most of my readers. That's when I realized that if I wanted my voice to play a role in our political dialogue, this voice had to consistently make its presence known. I'm very busy now with class, work, married life, and blogging, but I think it's a bit easier to juggle everything now than when I first started The 7-10. So keep at it!

Anyway, give me the link to your blog and I'll check it out. I can offer you feedback if you'd like. If you can regularly maintain your blog, I'll be happy to add a link to it from here. Feel free to contact me at theseventen AT gmail DOT com if you have any other questions.

Thanks for reading, and good luck with your new project!

Brett said...

That was a well-written blog post. Have you read the New York Times article on Edwards's failing candidacy? It was a few days back, and while they didn't bring up how he was supposed to be the frontrunner for change in 2007, they did bring up another reason as to why he is still running.

According to the Times article, he literally has nothing to go back to, assuming he loses and drops out. He hasn't had his practice going since before 2004, and he's not a senator anymore. Campaigning has sort of become his life.

Nikki said...

Hey Anthony......I think the Kerry Edwards ticket is the biggest problem for Edwards. Obviously the two aren't on the best of terms as John Kerry has endorsed Obama. John Edwards didn't give Kerry the boost he needed and so Kerry is returning the favor. In my opinion Edwards is already labeled as not being able to beat even the most unpopular candidate, George W. Bush. I think the dems are looking for a power house to take the WH in '08 and John Edwards is not it. He already proved it 4 years ago. That is why I think Hillary as unpoular and unlikeable as she is, is getting support soley based on her electability. She is seen as being powerful enough for the GOP machine. :)Nikki