Whither Edwards Supporters?

This piece originally appeared on January 28, 2008. John Edwards dropped out of the presidential race yesterday.  For more commentary from Dana Goldstein and Tom Schaller, visit TAPPED.

Also, visit our archives for Ezra Klein on Edwards' populist rhetoric, and an interview with Elizabeth Edwards.

It's easy to imagine who the typical John Edwards voter is -- or was. A union member, perhaps working in a manufacturing industry where layoffs are a real threat. Or maybe a small farmer, frustrated by federal government policies that favor agribusiness.

After all, Edwards is a populist candidate who led the Democratic pack with progressive proposals on issues like health care and poverty. He spent four years wooing unions and lamenting corporate America's influence on politics. Edwards even controversially promised that as president, he'd take away Congress' health insurance if it didn't guarantee the American people the same level of coverage. And he spoke constantly about his Southern roots and commitment to rural communities.

But in actuality, it's been difficult throughout this primary to point to any particular demographic that has glommed on to Edwards' message. Indeed, his support has often come from unexpected places. In Iowa, the first and last state where Edwards made a real play to win, his supporters skewed upper-income and were more likely to call themselves "conservative" than were supporters of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Although he consistently spoke about the importance of organized labor, Edwards came in third place among union members, despite the United Steelworkers and SEIU endorsing him in the state. (The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees endorsed Clinton and advertised on her behalf in Iowa.) And he performed better in suburban areas than in rural ones.

In the five-day campaigning blitz between the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, many voters who liked Edwards seemed to conclude that he was no longer a viable candidate. Less than half of New Hampshire voters who had a "strongly favorable" opinion of Edwards actually cast their ballots for him, compared to 81 percent and 66 percent of those who felt the same way about Clinton and Obama. As he had in Iowa, Edwards did well among voters who were looking for the candidate who "cares about people," perhaps because of a stump speech that told the stories of regular folk affected by job layoffs and cost-cutting health insurers. But Edwards once again seemed to appeal very much to voters who stood to the right of all three front-running Democrats; white men who oppose the withdrawal of troops from Iraq identified with Edwards less because of his stance on issues than because of a cultural affinity for the Southern white male in the race.

When the contest rolled on to Nevada, a more diverse state, Edwards' support hit an astonishing low of 4 percent. And while he finished in a more respectable third place in South Carolina, with 18 percent of the vote, Edwards won only 2 percent of African American voters, who made up over half of the Democratic electorate in the state.

As the mainstream media continues to push Edwards to the sidelines of their coverage, the progressive blogosphere seems like the one place where true Edwards believers can still be found. "Edwards has always been a big favorite of the blogosphere, but they don't have a lot of votes," joked Ruy Teixeira, a fellow at the Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress and an expert on polling. "In the early states, his demographic profile hasn't been particularly sharp, except in the sense that he skews more to men than to women."

"The Edwards campaign never really caught fire," Teixeira continued.

As that analysis becomes more and more undeniable, many Edwards supporters, including those in his campaign's inner circle, are asking why their candidate, the Democratic party's vice-presidential nominee in 2004, hasn't done better. In part, they blame the media, which, ever since Obama's February 2007 entrance into the race, rushed to portray it as a two-person contest between the first woman and first African American to have a serious shot at the presidency.

But privately they admit that Edwards' candidacy was flawed: It relied on populist rhetoric at a time when a grassroots populist movement doesn't exist, and Edwards' personal life, including his large mansion and much-maligned expensive haircut, detracted from his ability to speak convincingly about the plight of lower- and middle-class Americans. But they still insist that their guy would have been the safest bet to face off against a Republican in front of an electorate accustomed to white, male politicians. As Edwards himself said at the South Carolina debate on Jan. 21, "it’s amazing now that being the white male is different. … I grew up in the rural South, in small towns all across the rural South, and I think I can go everywhere and compete head-to-head with John McCain."

Realistically, the question for Edwards' Democratic competitors is no longer how they'll beat him but how, on Super Tuesday, they can peel votes away from the remaining 11 percent of the Democratic primary electorate that supports him, but may be looking to back a winner.

Intuitively, it makes sense that Edwards supporters would trend toward Obama. Both candidates ran as the anti-Clinton. Edwards even spoke about his own affinity toward Obama's "change" message at the last New Hampshire debate.

But some polling suggests otherwise. A Jan. 24 Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg News poll found that nationally, Edwards voters prefer Clinton to Obama by a slight margin. She could have an edge among those who are attracted to Edwards' focus on the economy. "Hillary talks about the economy more than Obama, and she's connected to the Clinton presidency, which people view as successful on the economic front," Teixeira said.

Edwards supporters bristle at the idea that Clinton could effectively assume Edwards' mantle as the economic populist in the race. They point to her husband's support for free trade and her own strong ties to corporate America. "John's views on trade and tax fairness are just different than what the Clinton administration's were, so there will be a credibility issue on these matters," said Leo Hindery, a former telecom executive and the senior economic policy adviser to the Edwards campaign. But most voters don't have a grasp of the finer policy differences between the Democratic candidates, and low-income voters -- those who would be most helped by Edwards' populist policies -- are especially loyal to Clinton. In recent weeks, she has doubled down on that appeal, speaking often about pocketbook issues such as the sub-prime mortgage crisis and health-care costs.

The economy has now eclipsed the Iraq War as voters' number one concern. It's a public-opinion shift Edwards partisans believe would have benefited their candidate had it occurred earlier in the primary cycle. They see Obama, too, as a poor general election nominee when it comes to addressing economic insecurities. Working-class voters are skeptical of a message attuned to the outlook of elite young adults, Edwards supporters say. "Barack Obama is talking about hope, but who is he talking to?" noted a senior union official with close ties to the Edwards campaign. "College kids and college-educated people already have hope. The politics of hope is tricky for 37- to 57-year-old working class men."

But populist politics proved to be tricky, too -- and therein lies the biggest disappointment for Edwards supporters deeply invested in the candidate's confrontation of corporate America. Organized labor failed to unite around the candidate who most clearly embraced its goals, but even if it had, with just 12.1 percent of American workers belonging to a union, the movement likely wouldn't have had the muscle to overcome the celebrity candidacies of both Clinton and Obama. Indeed, there is no widespread, popular movement afoot in America today calling for a rollback of corporate power. Even Edwards' advisers admit many Americans just aren't "ready" or "comfortable" with their candidate's aggressive rhetoric.

"It is still true in America that class politics has a lot of trouble breaking through, and I think that has to do with a failure of imagination,” the union official said. “A fundamental challenge of corporate power is very, very hard for people to absorb."

With Edwards’ presidential ambitions seemingly quashed, many campaign insiders are wondering what his next step will be. There’s buzz about a possible Cabinet-level appointment, maybe even to attorney general. But others hope that released from the pressure of the presidential race, Edwards will become to anti-poverty work and populism what Al Gore is for the environment -- a powerful national advocate above the partisan fray.

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