Who’s Electable Now?

Kerry won the Wisconsin primary, but is Edwards the big winner?


When the history of the 2004 presidential race comes to be written, will the Democratic primary in Wisconsin be seen as a watershed — the moment when, even in victory, John Kerry started to lose, and John Edwards, in defeat, started his slow, steady rise to the nomination and the White House?

Who the hell knows?

What’s clear is that Tuesday night’s outcome, with its intimations of Edwards’ strengths and Kerry’s vulnerabilities, at the very least complicates Kerry’s rise to the top of the Democratic ticket.

Most bets, it’s true, are still on Kerry, who has won all but one of the primaries so far, and who, it’s assumed, is the most “electable” Democrat. But exit polls in Wisconsin suggest that while Kerry might have the Democratic vote locked up, he’s less popular than Edwards with swing voters.

Slate’s William Saletan has some useful tables compiled from exit polls showing that Republicans and independents, who were allowed to vote in five of the recent primaries, in general prefer Edwards to Kerry. The point is that registered Democrats who voted for Kerry in the primaries will probably vote for Edwards if he’s the nominee; but independents and Republicans who vote for Edwards in the primaries will probably not — or at least are less likely to — vote for Kerry in the presidential election. In other words, centrist swing voters are more likely to vote for Edwards than Kerry in November. So who’s more electable now?

Says Saletan:

If people support Kerry because they think he’s electable, he goes up in the polls, which makes him look more electable. The best way to filter out this distortion is to focus on the voters least likely to make their decisions in November based on electability. These happen to be the same voters who hold the balance of power in most elections: independents, conservative Democrats, and moderate Republicans. They aren’t principally trying to figure out which Democratic candidate can beat Bush, because they don’t necessarily want the Democratic nominee to beat Bush. They’re trying to decide which Democratic candidate, if any, would be a better president than Bush.

“By and large, the closer you move to the center and center-right of the electorate, where the presidential race will probably be decided, the worse Kerry does. The opposite is true of Edwards.”

A problem for Edwards, though, is that the March primaries in crucial California and New York don’t allow non-Democrats to participate, so they’re more likely to favor Kerry. Yet open primaries in four southern states–including Texas–could be key indicators of his potential appeal to swing voters.

William Graham of the conservative National Review anyway disagrees that Edwards can lure swing voters after his second place showing in Wisconsin, which he credits to “farm state socialism”:

“Interestingly, Edwards did surprisingly well among suburban independents and crossover Republicans in Wisconsin … Part of this might be attributable to local politics as well.

“But I suspect there’s also an element of inadvertent deception at work. John Kerry of Massachusetts is obviously a liberal. John Edwards, a southerner running against the northeastern liberal, must not be a liberal, right? Actually, wrong. If anything, John Edwards is to the left of Kerry on economic issues. John Kerry, for example, is trying to pretend he’s against free trade to get through the primaries, while Edwards really seems to mean it. But it’s an easy mistake for suburban, crossover, and late-deciding voters to make.”

This might be wishful thinking, though. There’s no doubt that Edwards has an appeal that Kerry lacks, and it’s not a simple matter of policies; it’s more that he’s a likeable guy.

Ellen Warren of the Chicago Tribune reports from Milwaukee:

“Bowler Dan Pfannenstiel decided on Edwards only after the Wisconsin debate Sunday when he was impressed with the North Carolina Senator’s performance. Dan’s father-in-law, Ray Wolf, said the same thing. As he polished his bowling ball, Wolf told me he switched from leaning toward Kerry to voting for Edwards because “he came across sincere. He had the best answers and didn’t dodge the issues.”

“A huge number of Edwards voters, like these three, made up their minds only in the final days of the campaign.

“One of those is Angela McManaman, who switched to Edwards after hearing him speak at an event Saturday night. “I went from Dean in a heartbeat. He (Edwards) has a story and a presence that people haven’t really seen in mainstream politics.”

Kerry has definite advantages over Edwards. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, he has $28 million on hand, twice as much as his rival. And money counts for more in big states than in smaller ones, where Edwards’ people skills play well.

Kerry funds 10 percent of his own campaign, while Edwards takes nothing from his own pocket–a potential selling point for voters who view Kerry’s marriage to a Heinz Ketchup-heir as a mark of elitism.
Lawyers and law firms are the top donors to both men’s campaigns but account for nearly half of Edwards’ $14 million compared with only one in nine of Kerry’s dollars. In fact, Edwards get $1 million more from lawyers than the president, who boasts a $132 million campaign arsenal.

Conventional wisdom has it that Americans hate greedy trial lawyers. However, in a Salon interview more than a year ago, Jake Tapper summarizes how Edwards twists to his advantage his work suing corporations for people hurt by their products:

“Voilà: John Edwards as John Grisham hero.”

Tom Raum of the Associated Press reports:

Edwards’ main campaign theme — that there are “two Americas,” one for the rich and powerful and another for everybody else — plays well with audiences.

Even though Edwards voted for measures that helped send U.S. jobs to China, Teamsters Union president James P. Hoffa called him “impressive.”

Tapper explains that the gentleman-lawyer-for-the-common-man persona plays especially well in the South. Having carried his own state’s primary, he might attract voters throughout the region when Southern states hold primaries.

Some pundits warn that Edwards could fall into the trap of being too mild. Franklin Foer of the New Republic advises Edwards to roll up his sleeves;

“If John Edwards is lucky, the next two weeks of media coverage will sound something like this: His campaign has achieved its surprising success, most recently in Wisconsin last night, by turning generations of strategy on its head. Instead of tearing his opponents a new one, Edwards has thrown out the old Lee Atwater attack manual and adopted niceness as his preferred mode of discourse. Edwards will be lucky if the press adopts this line, because it will provide him with cover to evolve his campaign to its next stage–the stage where he must abandon everything but the pretense of gentility and attack Kerry like hell.

“Of course, it’s hard to quibble with the results that Edwards’s politeness has yielded thus far. As of last night, it had helped him leapfrog over more experienced, better-financed candidates and into a two-man race. But niceness has finally reached the limits of effectiveness. After Wisconsin, there are simply no other opportunities on the calendar for the time-intensive retail politicking that allows Edwards to win over audiences with his rosy outlook. From here on out, he will have to use the media and commercials to make his case, forums that lend themselves far more to bold contrasts than subtle salesmanship.

“…fortunately for him, he has a light touch that is perfectly suited for sticking in the knife. When he’s taken his shots against Kerry, as he did in the last debate, he’s done so with humor and without rancor. “That’s the longest answer I ever heard to a yes-or-no question,” he cracked after one of Kerry’s windier orations at last Sunday’s debate. To invoke the overused trial lawyer metaphor: Edwards has shown his ability to deliver a sweet closing argument. But presumably he also has lots of experience tearing up opposing witnesses in cross-examination, without looking like a jerk.”

“And, make no mistake: attacking Kerry presents Edwards with a very real chance of success. Particularly if Edwards seizes on Kerry’s greatest vulnerability — his habit of taking both sides of every major issue.

If the Democrats nominate Kerry, how should Edwards vie for the second slot? Foer again:

“…his best hope for showing his potential is aggressively campaigning and beating John Kerry in a few more states. Besides, Edwards needs to prove his inner political animal to the Kerry campaign. If he doesn’t have enough grit to go after Kerry, how is he supposed to tackle Dick Cheney?”

Even if Edwards loses the nomination and Kerry picks a different running mate, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post credits the Southerner with helping to unite his party against the Republicans.

“Edwards’s relentlessly sunny approach was a shrewd tactic that allowed him to stand out in Iowa while many of his competitors were slashing each other to pieces. Eventually, the Edwards nonaggression pact set the tone. A party accustomed to presenting itself to voters as a collection of warring street gangs suddenly looks coherent enough to run a government. Imagine that.”

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