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Did Edwards cost Clinton the nomination? Maybe not.
A top aide to Hillary Clinton says if revelations about John Edwards’ extramarital affair had come out before the Iowa caucuses, Clinton would be the presumptive nominee today.
That’s impossible to definitively answer, of course. But a caucus night survey indicates that most Edwards caucus goers had a second choice other than Clinton, and his absence would likely have meant a bigger Iowa win for Barack Obama.
“I believe we would have won Iowa, and Clinton today would therefore have been the nominee,” if Edwards had dropped out before Iowa, former Clinton Communications Director Howard Wolfson told ABC News.
Iowa’s delegate totals — the Democrats refuse to release actual vote counts — were Obama 37.6 percent, Edwards 29.7 percent and Clinton 29.5 percent. Wolfson’s assertion assumes that two-thirds of Edwards’ supporters had Clinton as a second choice, rather than Obama or one of the second-tier candidates.
Wolfson said internal Clinton polls showed “our voters and Edwards’ voters were the same people. They were older, pro-union. Not all, but maybe two-thirds of them would have been for us and we would have barely beaten Obama.”
University of Iowa political science professor David Redlawsk conducted a caucus night survey on second choices. “We asked people ‘If your candidate is not viable, what will you do?’ 82 percent of Edwards supporters said they would support another candidate and 18 percent would not,” said Redlawsk. “When we asked which candidate they would then support, 32 percent said Clinton and 51 percent said Obama. Had this actually happened statewide, Obama would have been even further ahead of Clinton.”
“As the campaign progressed few Edwards people gave any indication that Clinton was their second choice,” said Redlawsk, who was himself elected as an Edwards national delegate and now supports Obama. “And obviously a campaign without Edwards would have had a totally different dynamic, with different foci, with different media coverage for all of the candidates, and so on. The great thing about Wolfson’s quote is that it seems like it might be right, but of course can never be proven one way or the other.”
Clinton’s Iowa campaign emphasized her experience and a “ready to lead on day one” theme, rather than the economic issues Edwards emphasized. Clinton shifted toward economic themes later in the campaign, after Iowa.
While attention in the late primaries and early general election campaign has shifted to the economy, the Iraq War was on the front burner a year or so ago when Iowa’s party activists were making their choices. Edwards and Clinton took different approaches toward their October 2002 votes authorizing the war. Edwards explicitly apologized for his vote, saying, “I was wrong to vote for it. I have to take responsibility for that and I do.” At the same time, he said, “There’s not a single voter in America who doesn’t understand that their president is human, and their president will sometimes makes mistakes” — ironic in retrospect.
Clinton merely said she would have voted differently on the war if “I knew then what I know now,” and in February 2007 said, “If the most important thing to any of you is choosing someone who did not cast that vote or has said his vote was a mistake, then there are others to choose from.”
Edwards also tried to emphasize his electability, but dropped the argument after he was accused of subtle racism and sexism. But the electability theme was still on the minds of many of his supporters. The evidence may be anecdotal, but at an October Edwards debate watching party, viewers seemed more hostile to Clinton than toward Obama, at a time when Clinton was still the national frontrunner. The comment, “she can’t win” was overheard more than once.
Edwards was out of the race by the time Iowa county conventions met in March, but in many counties the Edwards group stayed together. In places where they didn’t, the shift was overwhelmingly toward Obama. In Marshall County, the Edwards group en masse joined the Obama group.
Edwards himself endorsed Obama in May and was considered a long-shot possibility as a running mate, or more likely for a position in an Obama cabinet, until news of the affair was revealed Friday.