John Edwards: Then and Now

The 7-10 wishes all of its readers a Happy New Year.

While the real Christmas may have been a week ago, a second Christmas for politicos everywhere will take place in just two days: the Iowa caucuses. After crisscrossing the state and giving speeches, fundraisers, and interviews for the better part of 2007, the results and effectiveness of these efforts will finally be able to be ascertained.

I've written a lot about the Clinton vs. Obama storyline, as those two candidates have generally led the Iowa polls for the past six months. However, one candidate is not going away. Assuming Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, and Joe Biden don't gain any traction, this candidate is Hillary Clinton's best friend and Barack Obama's worst nightmare. This candidate is John Edwards, and what a journey he's had.

Last February I wrote about Bloggergate and the political fallout involved. While this gave Edwards several days of bad press, this mini-brouhaha goes to show you that in politics, it's far better to make your mistakes and get your unflattering stuff out there for all to see a year before the election, rather than a month or even a week before. (Imagine where Mitt Romney would be right now had he addressed his Mormon faith last spring when nobody was paying attention! Mike Huckabee would probably be a nonstory right now!)

In March, Edwards was befallen by a personal tragedy--this time involving his wife Elizabeth, who was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. I argued that Edwards should drop out of the race because he would run the risk of being seen as placing his political ambitions above his wife's health, a mindset that could destroy his chances with female voters.

In July, I addressed the budding caricature of Edwards as an elite hypocrite who gets $400 haircuts and lives in a huge estate while claiming to be an advocate for the poor. Voters who are a bit more discerning may view the haircut and house size as nonstories, as most politicians probably live in large houses and splurge on things that average people don't, such as cars, clothing, and vacations. However, a lot of voters may penalize Edwards for this, although I'd venture that voters who hold Edwards' haircut against him were likely never to vote for him to begin with. Nevertheless, it gives Edwards' opponents another weapon they could use to portray him in a negative light.

Edwards really started slipping in August, as he relinquished his lead in the Iowa polls to Hillary Clinton, pulled his campaign staff out of Nevada, opted for public financing, and risked having his wife overshadow him because of her attacks on his opponents. These developments caused me to wonder if Edwards could even survive until Iowa. Shortly after that, I accused Edwards of childishness, as the nastiness of his rhetoric paled in comparison to the absurdity of his denials of these attacks.

Fortunately for Edwards, his fortunes began to change in November as Clinton made a rare misstep at a debate and doubts about Obama's toughness were creeping in. While Edwards had been attacking Clinton for months, I argued that he could pivot from attacking her to attacking Obama for not being able to fight. Restless Obama supporters might have been receptive to this charge, seeing that Obama was running in place in most polls at the time.

And finally in December, Obama began to catch fire and his ascension crowded out all other political news. I speculated that Edwards stood the risk of getting lost in the shuffle not only because Clinton and Obama were sucking all the political oxygen out of the room, but also because Richardson, Biden, and Dodd could pool their support and open up a new front that Edwards could not match--experience and gravitas.

And now we are just two days from Iowa. Despite all of these stories and developments I just mentioned, many of which are unflattering, John Edwards is quietly keeping himself in contention in Iowa. He was even leading a recent Mason Dixon poll. Because of Edwards' impressive campaign organization in Iowa and his strength as a second choice candidate, it is quite possible that he can actually win the caucuses on Thursday. Surely Obama and Clinton were not expecting Edwards to stick around this long, but they must now contend with the fact that he can overtake both of them.

But what would an Edwards victory mean?

Should Edwards win Iowa, Hillary Clinton would send him bouquets of flowers and boxes of chocolate because as far as Clinton is concerned, coming in second to Obama is far worse than coming in third to Edwards. The Clinton campaign believes Edwards is an easier rival to overcome than Obama because Obama has so much money and so many supporters. This would allow him to compete with Clinton in all 50 states. Clinton doesn't think Edwards can do that, as he is generally polling a distant third in most national polls. Plus, an Obama victory in Iowa would instantly certify his electability and create a deluge of favorable media coverage for him and a cascade of "Is Clinton finished?" stories for her.

Coming in second to Edwards would fatally cripple Obama because that would blunt his momentum in New Hampshire and allow Clinton to win there. Because independents can vote in any primary they like in New Hampshire, they might turn out for John McCain instead of Obama if Obama doesn't win Iowa first.

Edwards' populist message is not resonating as well in New Hampshire, a fairly wealthy and more fiscally conservative state. He is also polling considerably worse in New Hampshire than in Iowa, so he might not get a big enough bounce out of Iowa to overtake Clinton there. However, he might get enough of a bounce to overtake a wounded Obama.

An Edwards victory in Iowa followed by a Clinton victory in New Hampshire would turn South Carolina into the do-or-die state for Obama because he could ill afford to go into Super Tuesday 0 for 3. I live in South Carolina and I can tell you that Edwards has been advertising heavily here. If Edwards makes it to South Carolina, he would be able to credibly argue that not only is he the "change" candidate, but also the electable "change" candidate. He would be able to argue that he (and not Obama) is the non-Hillary candidate that can win in November while putting more states in play than she can. Obama would have a hard time countering this argument because he would not have any victories in Iowa or New Hampshire to back him up.

Black voters in South Carolina would either have to give Obama one final chance, or they will defect to Clinton, a known quantity for Black voters. However, Obama could not court these Black voters too aggressively, lest he be seen as "Black candidate" rather than a "unity candidate who happens to be Black." Edwards would probably make a play for Black voters by stressing his commitment to fighting poverty and rebuilding New Orleans. Whites would respond to this message of fighting poverty as well, given the rural nature of the state and the abundance of poor mill towns here.

For Edwards to win the nomination, he needs to get Obama out of the race as soon as possible. He can deliver a major uppercut in Iowa and a knockout punch in South Carolina. I've argued many times that there simply isn't enough room in the race for both of them to coexist. They are both running as "outsiders" and "agents of change." Both have high name recognition and exude youth and vigor. Edwards has the advantage of having run a national campaign before, but Obama has the advantage of a huge war chest. Edwards' decision to accept public financing will hamstring his campaign in the future if he has to go one on one against Clinton. However, that will also afford him the opportunity to identify Clinton as a part of "the system" he rails against.

The "inexperience" label is one that has generally been used to describe Obama, but not Edwards even though Edwards only has one term in the Senate under his belt. To beat Clinton, Edwards needs to channel a bit of Obama's message because Obama has tapped into something very real and Edwards is the best positioned to capitalize on this. Obama supporters probably view Clinton as a last resort, so Edwards stands to recruit these supporters in the event that Obama's candidacy falters. Here's the argument that Edwards should make if it comes down to him and Clinton:

"Even though Clinton and I agree on most issues, I am the candidate that is able to bring more Americans together. Fairly or unfairly, I am the candidate that is more acceptable to more voters. Clinton talks a lot about being able to 'beat the Republicans.' Well, I would argue that this statement embodies the problem we have with our politics because 'beating them' is not as important as getting some of them to join us because the problems we face are not just Democratic problems or Republican problems. They are America's problems, and we have to confront them together."
(Please remember that I am not a member of any campaign.)

In short, if Clinton wins Iowa, her inevitability will be confirmed and she will likely run the table and win the nomination.

If Obama wins Iowa, his electability will be confirmed and he will likely run the table and win the nomination.

If Edwards wins Iowa, he will still need to do some work later on in order to eliminate his rivals and remain competitive throughout the primary season. Because his path to the nomination is a bit more complex, even though he may be tied for first or a very close second in Iowa, he is still solidly in third place when it comes to his chances of winning it all and making it to the national party convention in Denver.

8 comment(s):

Thomas said...

Very good analysis, Anthony. Any chance you will be doing a similar post on Mitt Romney?

Nikki said...

Of course You know how I feel about Edwards. I have a hard time with an extremely rich ambulance chaser stumping for the "folks". I don't see how he is a better option than Obama. I would add to your assesment the women factor. My friends mom is extremely liberal and likes Mitt Romney. She thinks he is good-looking. The same goes for John Edwards. I think he attracts women voters on his boyish charm and good looks. Even his cover of Time or Newsweek (can't remember which one) was more of a GQ pose than someone running for President. He looks very young and women tend to lean towards the handsome. I think that Obama is nice-looking so he will get some female vote. Howeer Hillary getting he male vote based on looks. not happening. :)

Silence Dogood said...

Nikki, I am not an Edwards supporter, but I am curious about that being the issue you take with Edwards. Well, if I understand you correctly (which is why I ask). If it is the fact he is rich, and a lot of people say that, but that doesn't make sense to me as who better to help the poor - if they are so inclined. If the only people who could/should genuinely represent the have nots are other have nots, then they truly will never have much of a shot. As far as the ambulance chaser thing, I have always thought his plaintiff trial lawyer thing played in well with his populist platform i.e. who is it that helps the little guys against the big evil corps. and insurance co's...trial lawyers.

None the less, I have heard this a lot before and was wondering if you could expound on it and apologies in advance for generalizing what you said without knowing more about your particular gripe with him. Like I said, I am not voting for Edwards, but don't understand why this particular gripe with him persists even though it doesn't seem (in my personal opinion) to jive with reasons for such a dislike.

Anthony Palmer said...


I encourage you to read Roadmaps to the Nomination. That gives a fairly detailed view of each Republican's chances of winning the nomination. I had no plans of making a similar post about Romney because of time constraints, but if he survives Iowa (by beating Huckabee), I probably will devote a special piece to Romney as he contrasts with McCain and Giuliani.



Mitt Romney is almost four times wealthier than John Edwards. (You can compare the leading candidates' net worth here.) Does this mean that Romney is not qualified to talk about helping the middle class?

Also, I think that as long as people earn their money honorably, they should be left alone, regardless of what their profession is. In the case of Edwards, the "ambulance chaser," as you put it, he obviously had to get a lot of education and do a lot of research before becoming a successful lawyer. I can respect that, even though I have no interest in the legal professions. Keep in mind, Giuliani was an attorney as well. And at least in Edwards' case, he has spent time rebuilding New Orleans and stumping in the lower class and working class neighborhoods. So I believe he is a bit more credible in his commitment to helping the poor.



Yep, those are my sentiments too. Is John McCain the only person who should lead the military because he was a vet? Is Bill Richardson the only person who should deal with illegal immigration because of his mixed heritage? Is Hillary Clinton the only person who could deal with issues of women's rights? You will likely never see a poor president in the White House in our lifetimes (unless I run in 2020 or something), but until then, I'd like to think that you don't have to be something in order to credibly address it. Otherwise, Kerry would not have been swiftboated last year for his service in Vietnam.

Thanks for your comments everyone.

Nikki said...

Hey Silence,
The reason I bring up the wealth issue with John Edwards is because he claims to have a monopoly on the best intrests of poor people and his profession is part of a world of frivolous lawsuits that I believe have contributed to the high costs of health care, which hurts all of us. Now he can claim to be a champion for the little guy but he has profited from it as well. Our health care system is hurt partly due to his proffession. Also I think it is elitest to have such low expectations of people and that without the help of rich smart people "the folks" can't make it. This is a philosophy that gets under my skin. I am not saying society shouldn't take care of the poor. But to me we are doing a bad job of it if the government has to do it. And I don't beleive all corporations are evil. They do after all employ people. I don't buy into the idea that we must all have a piece of the pie. It just rubs me the wrong way when politicians act like they will be handing out dollar bills to help the poor. thanks for the question. Nikki

The reason I don't get on Mitt like I do John Edwards is because he is republican. Like I said to Silence, dems claim a monopoly on helping the poor. Edwards to me has cost all Americans money with his lawsuits. I do think it is hypocritical to claim to be a champion for the little guy and sit in a castle ripping on corporate America. Mitt made his money as a business man which may be argued a corporate blood sucking. But I fail to see how Staples who employs people has screwed poor people. High health care costs definately do. great topic!!

Anthony Palmer said...


Ron Paul is a Republican. What do you think of him?

Republicans also claim that only they (not the Democrats) can be trusted with dealing with terrorism. Do you agree with that?

As for "the little guy," I do believe that a lot of businesses like to exploit the little guy just to save a few bucks. Why are so many companies hiring illegal immigrants at the expense of displacing legal American workers, for example?

I agree that self-reliance is important for everyone, regardless of one's wealth. But I also think there should be an oversight entity that ensures that exploitation doesn't take place and that standards and laws are not being broken.

Also, the consequences of not assisting those who have less are larger than what one may originally think. It may make us feel good to know that the government is not bailing out poor people and people who made poor decisions with their lives and finances. But these same desperate people may resort to desperate measures (crime) or endanger the public in some other way (drugs, communicable diseases, entering the workforce with no education and no skills, etc.).

I think there should be a balance between toughness and compassion, and no one political party has all the answers to this. That's why I am not quick to identify myself as a Republican or a Democrat.

Nikki said...

Anthony you are so fast today....I may never get off the computer Haha!!
I don't like Ron Paul AT ALL. I don't see how he is republican he seems to be more libertarian. To me he and Kucinich are the same person. And as shallow as it may be I admit there is too much of a Mr. Magoo factor to him and a HUGE likability problem. He is an attack dog and scares me!!!
Your point is well taken with the terrorist comparison. I do think that the rise of the neo-con has proven that liberals are too passive on this issue for most Americans and since the libs have hijacked the dems they get the fall-out. In the last few years since 9/11, it would appear that going against the President has become a national pastime for most dems. The pile-on hasn't always been for the sake of politics, but nonetheless, it makes dems look soft. Would Obama defend our country militarily? I understand the other side of the Iraq argument. But he appears to want to appease.
I agree that the government should make sure workers don't get exploited. And you may be surprised to know that I disagree with my republican commrades on immigration. I lived in AZ for 5 years and had plenty of illegals who did my yard and cleaned my house etc. (my chances for running for public office are GONE) There are jobs that white people WILL NOT DO, especially in 120 degree weather. I have friends that owned landscaping companies, construction companies and white workers wanted more money, more time off, and were terrible workers, complaining constantly. The illegals worked hard, were reliable and never complained. Living in that state, I feel the plight of the Mexican.
Don't get me wrong about helping the poor. You and I both know this country has a welfare system, and are helped to a degree. And I don't think people are poor necessarily because of poor decisions. I have made plenty in my life. A society will always have poor people and making promises to them for political gain is just as ugly as not taking care of them. I just don't buy politicians who claim to be the answer to poor people. To me this is pandering to a desperate person who will vote for empty promises. The government will never and should never be a crutch to the poor. To me this drives a bus of co-dependancy and politicians already use it as a vote generator. Neither party has all the answers I agree. Especially when these promises have to go up against Congress and may never have legs.
Nik :)

Silence Dogood said...

Nikki, thanks for taking the time to respond to my question. I can understand your gripe with Edwards, but it seems in part a gripe with him in particular (which is fine) but not to be so connected to his platform vis a vis his personal - maybe it still is, but that I don't connect the dots on as well.

I can actually give you a much better example though if you would like. $400 haircuts are no biggie for me as I think even pointed out by Mr. Palmer here that as far as a percentage of his overall salary he may be paying LESS than most of us do for a haircut. However, my brother and his wife who had considered voting for Edwards went to a lunch speech he was doing and Edwars was over 45 minutes late. My brother said he and his wife left before he ever arrived. This to me speak much lowder about the dichotmy of Edwards i.e. if you are running on a populist message you should full well good and realize (despite the fact that most politicians are notoriously late) that your base of blue collar populist does not have more than 1 hours, usually less, to take off for lunch on some random day of the week - my brother and his wife are actually attorneys - he noted he could have stayed but Edward's lack understanding of this simple fact about this crowd spoke volumes to him (again this was hourly wage earners for the most part on their break - not some high patio cocktail hour where being late would maybe even be posh). I did disagree with your conclusion, but with how you got there. I am out of the blogosphere for a few days and will be LOVE taking all this in starting tomorrow. A happy new year to you all!

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