What it Means to Lose John Edwards

A few points on John Edwards’ decision to drop out:

1) It’s been clear since New Hampshire that Edwards had been reduced to playing — at best — kingmaker at the convention by collecting enough delegates to tip the scales to Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in the event that neither of them collected a large enough majority during the primaries. But his awful showing in Nevada (four percent) and his demoralizing finish in his native state of South Carolina (19 percent), suggested that, in 2008, there is room for only two candidates on the Democratic side. Even cracking 15 percent — the threshold to collect delegates in congressional districts — was looking like an uphill climb for Edwards in the remaining states. He leaves the race with just 26 pledged delegates.

2) The most immediate consequence of his departure is that Democrats will finally see a one-on-one debate between Clinton and Obama, who will square off in Los Angeles tomorrow night. Edwards’ presence, and his efforts to shame his opponents for criticizing each other, seemed to keep the two at bay during portions of the last Democratic debate. But tomorrow, the stage will be theirs alone.

3) Edwards was the odd man out from the moment Obama entered the race. After the ’04 election, Edwards devised a sound ’08 strategy, one predicated on the assumption that Clinton would be the only 800-pound gorilla in the race. He recast himself as a fearless, "big ideas" populist, an antidote to the cautious moderation that made Hillary anathema to much of the Democratic base. Throughout ’06, Edwards’ poll numbers grew, particularly in Iowa, and it wasn’t far-fetched to talk about him defeating Hillary in three of the first four primary and caucus states (Iowa, union-rich Nevada and his native South Carolina). But when Obama stepped forward at the end of ’06, Edwards’ plan blew up. His national, and key, state poll numbers began shrinking (as did his fund-raising) and he was reduced to focusing everything on Iowa. Even a win in Iowa probably wouldn’t have been enough for him. As it was, he came in second.

4) It may be that the Obama-Clinton race remains just as close, even if Edwards offers an endorsement. It’s been clear for a while that Edwards prefers Obama to Clinton. He rushed to Obama’s defense in the final New Hampshire debate, hailing him as a change agent and ridiculing Hillary as part of the status quo. (He was a little harder on Obama in South Carolina, as he sought to make a stand in that state.) If he does endorse Obama, it could give the Illinois Senator a boost, particularly in Oklahoma, Missouri, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama — the states where Edwards has been polling the strongest (as high as second place) in the run-up to next Tuesday. But South Carolina exit polls showed his voters split evenly between Hillary and Obama when it came to their second choice.

What it Means to Lose John Edwards