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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

2008 Without John Edwards

The chattering classes have been engaged over the last couple weeks in one of those debates over hypotheticals that only political junkies–and perhaps fans of “alternative history”–could care about: what would have happened in the presidential nominating process if John Edwards had gone the other way on running for president under the threat of exposure of his extramarital affair?
Unsurprisingly, Hillary Clinton’s 2008 pollster and “strategist,” Mark Penn, has looked for evidence that his candidate would have benefited from a one-on-one competition with Barack Obama, particularly in Iowa. As Mark Blumenthal has established by looking at polling data from Iowa, that’s not terribly plausible, since Obama was decisively the second-choice candidate among Iowa Edwards supporters. There was some pretty strong data early on suggesting that HRC and Edwards were both drawing from similar demographic categories–particularly older and more blue-collar voters–and Penn seems to think that the demographic-driven nature of the Obama-Clinton competition might have taken hold earlier without Edwards in the race. But it must be remembered that Obama’s difficulties in attracting “traditional” Democratic voters never really materialized in the upper midwest.
I do have to disagree for once with the excellent Mr. Blumenthal about one thing: his contention that the “least plausible” Edwards withdrawal scenario was between Iowa and New Hampshire. Makes perfect sense to me that Edwards might have gambled on keeping his secret until his very best state had voted, and then packed it once he lost, eliminating any realistic chance that he’d win the nomination. In any event, as Blumenthal shows, this scenario would have almost definitely produced an Obama win in NH, and quite possibly, an early end to the nomination contest. Would that have been good for Obama? The conventional wisdom is that an early win is always better, and for all the talk about Obama benefiting from the publicity and competition associated with the long struggle against HRC, that’s probably true. In retrospect, the largest advantage derived by Barack Obama from the nomination battle may well have been the obstinate belief of Republicans that he was very vulnerable in the general election–not to mention the really strange conviction that putting Sarah Palin on the GOP ticket would pull all those Clinton supporters across the line.

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