Why It Hasn't Worked Out for Edwards

John Edwards achieved just enough in the first two contests of the 2008 presidential campaign to justify pushing ahead. But now it’s getting hard to see the way forward: He failed to post the breakout showing (like, say, winning Iowa or beating Hillary in New Hampshire) that might have fundamentally scrambled the Democratic field. He’s stuck.

Conjuring an Edwards nomination scenario at this point is sort of like devising a road map to the national championship game for a three-loss college football team: It’s theoretically possible, yes, but it requires a large number of improbable conditionals to be met.

The sad part in that it could have turned out very differently for the former North Carolina Senator, who pursued a very smart strategy in his second White House bid, and who executed it well. But the plan was undercut by a development that no one anticipated in the early days on the ‘08 campaign: Barack Obama’s candidacy.

It was clear from the moment that he and John Kerry conceded the 2004 election that Edwards planned to run again. Back then, two very big names loomed over the emerging ‘08 Democratic field: Hillary Clinton and Al Gore. Hillary was certain to run, while Gore was a possible, but much less likely, entrant. (He’d also yet to remake his image as an Oscar-winning, Nobel laureate global-warming crusader.)

At that point it seemed the rest of the ’08 Democratic field would be populated by lesser-known names and long-shot retreads: Mark Warner, Evan Bayh and Tom Vilsack would try to position themselves as moderate, red state-friendly alternatives to Hillary; Bill Richardson would sell his resume and foreign policy experience; and Joe Biden and Chris Dodd would run campaigns that were at least four years late.

That left a gaping void on the left, where the party’s restless base was only growing more frustrated with the Iraq war and their leadership’s apparent complacency on the war and a host of other subjects, from the Bush administration’s abuse of power to a bankruptcy bill that cleared Congress with considerable Democratic support.

Edwards, who left the Senate in January 2005, immediately seized on this opening. He retreated to his home state and launched a poverty center at the University of North Carolina. He recanted his 2002 Senate vote to authorize the war, freeing him to speak the language of the party base. He embraced the union movement, lending his presence to campaigns to raise the minimum wage in states across the country. And he embraced the base’s rage with the Bush administration and antipathy toward Washington, taking Congressional Democrats to task for their lack of backbone on every issue imaginable.

The tactic was initially successful. Russ Feingold, a hero to the left and a possible ‘08 contender, removed his name from the mix early on. From late 2005 until well into 2006, Edwards’ standing in ‘08 polls steadily climbed—to the point that he was more than doubling up Kerry, who was then still holding out hope for an resurrection of his own.

By the summer of 2006, Edwards was the clear leader in early Iowa polls and was running in second place in national polls, behind only Hillary, whose efforts to re-brand herself as a centrist played right into Edwards’ hands, repelling the same party base whose heart he was seeking. Moreover, Gore wasn’t making any overtly political moves, giving Edwards hope that his status as the primary alternative to Hillary would endure.

Back then, a nomination scenario was easy to conceive: Edwards would beat Hillary in Iowa, seriously wounding the sense of inevitability that powered her campaign; then, he’d win union-friendly Nevada (back in those days, Nevada was scheduled before New Hampshire), further deflating Hillary; Hillary might then win New Hampshire, where Edwards was never strong (or maybe she’d lose–to Mark Warner, a natural fit for the state); but then Edwards would triumph again in South Carolina, his native state. With those three wins, he’d have the money and momentum to shake off a seriously damaged Hillary for good in the next wave of primaries.

And then the plan stopped mattering, thanks to Barack Obama. When Edwards began his ’08 campaign, Obama was still a member of the Illinois state Senate, awaiting his swearing-in in Washington. He’d emerged as an instant celebrity with his speech at the Democratic convention in the summer of ’04 and everyone considered him future presidential material–but no one thought the future would come in 2008. Obama himself took no meaningful steps to pursue a presidential bid throughout 2005 and the first half of 2006.

But then he hit the road to campaign for his party’s candidates in the midterm elections. He was greeted by crowds that no other politician could draw, and in all parts of the country. The depth of his political stardom became clear, and Obama ‘08 was born.

His emergence did not instantly ruin Edwards’ campaign, but it is now clear that Obama’s presence essentially stunted his growth. Edwards’ poll numbers, on the rise until Obama’s emergence, stalled and declined. The small donors, who were supposed to fuel his campaign, flocked to Obama. And the scope of his strategy shrank radically—instead of building a left-of-center coalition across the country, he was left to consolidate his resources in Iowa in an effort to make one desperate, campaign-saving stand.

The Obama-Clinton story, a fight between two political celebrities, each with history-making potential (first woman President versus first black President), captivated the media and the masses and put Edwards to an awkward middle ground–in the shadows of the two stars, but more prominent than the other Democratic candidates. With Obama in the race, there was no room for Edwards to grow, and there was no chance for the one-on-one race against Hillary–the bold populist vs. the calculating pragmatist–that his strategy had been predicated on.

Even if Edwards had somehow won Iowa last week, it’s still hard to see how it would have vaulted him to the nomination. He would likely have finished third in New Hampshire anyway, thus ensuring that the non-Hillary vote would be split going forward. And with Obama still viable, a win in South Carolina would also have been a remote possibility–just as it is now.

For Edwards, it must be painful to look back at the Democratic convention in 2004. Because had anyone other than the party’s U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois been asked to deliver the keynote address, Edwards might now be on the brink of the Democratic presidential nomination.

Why It Hasn't Worked Out for Edwards