What Edwards Did for the Democrats

Appearing on Sunday’s “Face the Nation” in a pre-taped interview, the latest stop in his reemergence tour, John Edwards explained his rationale for exiting the Democratic race in late January after finishing third in his native South Carolina.

“I had concluded I could stay in the race, keep getting significant numbers of votes, keep accumulating delegates,” he said. “But the overwhelming likelihood was I would not be the nominee.”

The public has been understandably fixated on the chaotic nature of the Clinton-Obama race and the headache-inducing prospect that it could last well into the summer months. When Edwards has been mentioned since his exit, it’s almost always been in the context of a prospective endorsement: Will he hurry up already and throw his weight behind one of them?

The idea, supposedly, is that by taking sides, Edwards would have somehow have been decisive, triggering a conclusion to a never-ending contest. That’s the theory despite the fact that this cycle, like so many others before it, has been a case study in the public’s indifference to endorsements.

What has mostly gone unnoticed is that Edwards, in reaching the decision that he described above, already did his party a gigantic favor.

As the race now stands, Barack Obama has 1,591 pledged delegates and commitments from 275 superdelegates, for a total of 1,866 delegates – just 159 shy of the 2,025 needed for a first-ballot nomination at the convention. Clinton has 1,426 pledged and 271 superdelegates – a total of 1,697. (Edwards still retains 18 pledged delegates he won in the earliest contests.)

The finish line is not too hard to see. There are 217 pledged delegates at stake in the remaining six primaries. Obama, with wins in Oregon, South Dakota and Montana and lopsided losses in West Virginia, Kentucky and Puerto Rico, should win about 100 of them, with Clinton pulling in about 117. Without factoring in any additional superdelegates either candidate reels in between now and then, the end-of-the-primaries delegate scoreboard would then read: Obama 1,966, Clinton 1,814.

That means Obama would to win endorsements from only about 20 percent of the outstanding superdelegates to hit the magic number of 2,025. Given the rate that he’s been winning them over since North Carolina and Indiana, he may win over enough of them before June 3. If he comes up just short, he’s pretty much certain to take care of it by June 4 or June 5. In other words, as close as the contest has been, Obama is set to score a clear victory well before the convention.

Now, imagine the comparative mess Democrats might be in if Edwards had opted to stick around after South Carolina. Obviously, it’s impossible to calculate the exact effect he would have had on the campaign. Were voters, after his poor showings in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, tiring of his presence and ready to tune him out for good? Or might they have turned back to him at some point, after tiring of the Clinton-Obama sniping? And perhaps he might have somehow provoked– in a debate, say – some kind of YouTube moment at the expense of one or both of the other candidates?

What we do know is that the proportional allocation rules that govern the Democratic process would have allowed Edwards to collect delegates simply by cracking 15 percent in a given congressional district. Had he stayed in, he would almost certainly have been swamped by Obama and Clinton, but how many delegates would he have won?

A reasonable guess is probably somewhere in the 150 to 200 range. Consider the February 5 primaries, where a number of southern and rural states went to the polls. Just by nabbing between 15 and 20 percent in states like Tennessee, Oklahoma, Missouri, Georgia and Arkansas (and picking of a scattering of delegates in California and some of the other non-southern states to vote that day), Edwards might have netted between 75 and 100 delegates on Super Tuesday. Had he then pressed on, he could potentially have added to that total in some of the smaller states that voted in February and where Clinton failed to organize effectively (Louisiana, maybe?) and then in Ohio in March, Pennsylvania in February, and in his home state of North Carolina as well as West Virginia and Kentucky in May.

There’s no telling exactly at whose expense these delegates would have come. But let’s say Edwards had stayed in and finished the primaries with 200 pledged delegates. (That’s 200 in addition to those that he won as a candidate). And let’s say that they came equally from Clinton’s and Obama’s hides. Suddenly, Obama would need to win more than 60 percent of the remaining superdelegates to break 2,025. And Obama’s pitch to superdelegates would be less persuasive, since Edwards – by drawing a few million votes in all of the primaries– would have fundamentally altered the popular vote math. No one would be in position to claim anything approaching an outright majority.

And that’s not the half of it. With his stash of delegates, Edwards would now be positioned as the convention’s kingmaker. Obama probably wouldn’t reach 2,025 with superdelegate support alone, and Clinton certainly wouldn’t. So the race wouldn’t end until Edwards decided to end it. We might now be facing a summer of speculation about backroom offers and counter-offers from the Obama and Clinton camps to Edwards, and the prospect of a second ballot at a national convention for the first time since 1956 would be more real than ever.

In the same “Face the Nation” interview, Edwards said that he thought quitting the race was going to “accelerate the process.”

“Well, obviously I was dead wrong about that,” he said.

Actually, he’s not nearly as wrong as he says.

What Edwards Did for the Democrats