1.30.2008

John Edwards unexpectedly drops out, will not endorse today

In an unexpected move a week from Super Tuesday, John Edwards has dropped out of the presidential race. The AP is reporting that the candidate will announce his decision today from New Orleans.

Edwards's exit makes the race an Obama-Clinton duel, as all their rivals have dropped out; and it also means that only the two of them will be on stage tomorrow night at the CNN debate. Much of the drama in the previous debates had been based on who Edwards chose to side with, and there will be no tag-teaming this time around.

Edwards had rested most of his hopes on winning the Iowa caucuses, where he kept close to Obama and Clinton throughout 2007 but ended up falling short. He followed that up with a series of disappointing finishes, the last of which in South Carolina. In the process, Edwards injected themes of poverty and ethics in the campaign, relentlessly attacking his opponents for their ties to lobbyists and advocated for policies that were more progressive than had been heard for a long time in the Democratic Party.

The immediate consequence of Edwards dropping out is that he will not get delegates next week. He might get some here and there, as people could still vote for him and as many people have already done so in early-voting but he is unlikely to cross the 15% viability threshold in many places. That means that (1) Clinton and Obama will divide the delegates up between themselves, making it more likely there is some margin between them next Wednesday morning and (2) there will be no brokered convention. For that to happen required Edwards to get many delegates to prevent either of his rivals from reaching a majority and emerge as king-maker.

The million dollar question now is who Edwards's supports will migrate to (and whether Edwards will endorse): This is 10% to 15% of the electorate we are talking about, and it could make the difference in tight delegate races next week if the majority of voters go for one candidate. It is very difficult to determine if that is likely to happen and where voters might go.

On the one hand, the obvious answer seems to be that Barack Obama stands to benefit from this, as Edwards's voters tend to be anti-Clinton. Edwards himself had often sided with Obama at debates, famously deriding Clinton as the candidate of the status-quo. This was obvious in Iowa, where Edwards supporters chose Obama primarily as their second-choice. The argument here also goes that the party's left, Edwards's base, would prefer Obama to Clinton.

But the dynamics could be different in February 5th states, where Clinton is much more at ease than in Iowa and where she holds a lead already, much of which comes from voters knowing her better than they do her rivals. In this context, the natural choice some Edwards supporters could be led back to their starting point, Hillary Clinton. And it is unclear whether the party's left will really prefer Obama over Clinton, given that the Illinois Senator has been heavily criticized for going too far to the center and emphasizing his message of unity too much. Furthermore, exit polls suggested that the Edwards voters do not tend to be that liberal anyway, and that Edwards tends to do better among conservative Democrats, which makes things even more confusing. For all it's worth, the LA Times poll of late January noted that, when asked to realign, "slightly more Edwards voters leaned toward Clinton than toward Obama, the poll found."

The best way to determine Edwards's impact might be to look at his strongest demographics; but even that yields few results. Edwards tends to do better among males, a group Clinton has struggled with which bodes well for Obama. On the other hand, Edwards's strength is among whites and he is already nowhere in the black vote. Given the campaign's racial polarization over the past few weeks, that could ultimately end up helping Clinton. Similarly, Edwards is strong among union workers and lower-class voters, a constituency that is one of Clinton's strongest.

So who Edwards helps depends on the region of the country, perhaps. In the South where the electorate looks particularly polarized -- just look at South Carolina -- Edwards's exit could make the white vote go more towards Clinton, giving her an opening to win states like Georgia and Alabama. In states outside of the South, Obama is much more comfortable winning the white vote -- as he did in Iowa -- and this should cause a problem for him. As most of the battleground states of Super Tuesday are not in the South but in the Midwest, Northeast and Southwest, this factor should not be that determinant.

Ultimately, the bottom line is that Edwards's withdrawal gives Obama an opening, 10% of the electorate that is now without a candidate and that could be convinced just in time for Super Tuesday in which he needs to move a significant amount of the votes fast. And since Clinton wants to keep the votes as stable as possible, such massive a portion of the electorate suddenly floating at such a crucial time of the campaign -- and at a time Clinton has been falling a bit -- is bad news.

Update: It looks like Edwards will not be endorsing today but aides of his campaign are telling the media that he might still announce his support for a candidate by February 5th which could obviously be a huge development. However, Marc Ambinder reports that aides are saying to not expect an endorsement in the near future. Overall, it is very difficult to imagine Edwards endorsing Clinton; after all, while he has had some very harsh exchanges with Obama (at the last debate, over health care, over union involvement in Iowa) most of his attacks have long been centered on Clinton and her ties to the status-quo and to lobbyists. His January 5th performance where he described Obama as a fellow candidate of change gives us a good idea of where he is heading.

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