In theory, the idea of John Edwards as the kingmaker of the Democratic convention makes sense: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama finish the primary season essentially tied for delegates, with Edwards running far back with 400 or so of his own. Then, with both front-runners short of the 2,026 delegates needed to win the nomination, Edwards could essentially pick the nominee, in exchange for some kind of concession–Attorney General, maybe?
But it’s unlikely to happen. Right now Edwards has only 26 pledged convention delegates (14 from Iowa, four from New Hampshire, and eight from South Carolina). He also has support from an estimated 32 super-delegates (elected leaders and party officials), but they can back out at anytime. Chances are that his total is not going to get much higher.
To add to his pledged delegates, Edwards needs to get at least 15 percent in every state yet to vote (not necessarily at the statewide level, though, since delegates are apportioned by district). But his failure to break through in the first four states is making him less relevant to the Democratic race every moment. He was always overshadowed by the Hillary vs. Barack storyline, but now he’s utterly eclipsed by it.
What happened in South Carolina is instructive. It is Edwards’ native state and he sought to rally regional pride as the only candidate with a local accent. He performed well at the pre-primary debate, positioning himself as a "grown-up" who wouldn’t stoop to the petty name-calling in which he said his rivals were engaging. There was even talk in the final days of an Edwards surge, one that would vault him into second place, ahead of Hillary, thus fueling him with some badly needed momentum in advance of Super Tuesday.
But no such thing happened. In the same state where he won 45 percent in 2004, Edwards finished a distant third, with just 19 percent. And he only did that well thanks to lopsided support from his home region.
The problem for Edwards is that, compared to the states that will vote next Tuesday, South Carolina is as good as it gets. Besides his personal ties, he also had a week to focus his energy on the state with dozens of campaign appearances, and he enjoyed generous media coverage. But Super Tuesday is essentially a national primary. Momentum, money, and media coverage propel candidates, and Edwards is running empty on all three. Meanwhile, the Hillary-Obama race is hotter than ever, likely to attract newfound interest from those who have been soft supporters of Edwards.
If the best Edwards could muster in South Carolina was 19 percent, then he figures to fare considerably worse on February 5 — well below the 15 percent threshold in just about every state and district. And in presidential politics, bad news begets bad news. A disastrous Super Tuesday will dry up Edwards’ support in the post-February 5 states, particularly if the two front-runners remain locked in a tight contest.
400 to 500 convention delegates may seem like a modest goal, but Edwards could fall well short of it. Sure, if Hillary and Obama end up even at the end of the primary season, then even 100 Edwards delegates could make the difference. But chances are that Edwards’ final tally will fall well short of 796, which is the total number of super delegates. And it is those super delegates, much more than Edwards’ delegates, who now loom large over the Democratic race.