Despite weeks of assertions that he would continue to campaign up to the convention, John Edwards unexpectedly dropped out of the race today. Making an announcement from the same place he began his campaign more than a year ago, Edwards appeared in New Orleans to confirm that he was abandoning his second presidential bid.
Overshadowed since the outset by two so-called celebrity candidates, Edwards struggled to keep up with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton financially, falling behind in a media war that painted a two-person race. Putting most of his chips in Iowa's kickoff caucuses, he narrowly edged Clinton for second, but the final blow was probably dealt by his distant third place finish on Saturday in his home state of South Carolina. The campaign had acknowledged that their path to the nomination had become extremely difficult, but argued they intended to win as many delegates as they could to gain influence at the convention. Edwards was the driving force of the policy debate for Democrats, coming out with detailed plans on health care, education, and poverty relief. "It's time for me to step aside," Edwards told the crowd of supporters, "so that history can blaze its path."
So what impact will the decision have on the race going forward? Let's start with what we know. A brokered convention, always a long shot, is now almost certainly out of the question. Such a scenario always relied on Edwards capturing enough delegates to prevent either Obama or Clinton from securing the nomination outright. Now, with the field shrinking to two candidates, the path to the nomination should be much clearer after February 5.
An endorsement didn't come today, but one wasn't ruled out for the future. Edwards noted that he had spoken to both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, both having pledged to make the fight to end poverty a central part of their campaigns. Despite a meeting with Clinton last week that set off rumors of a potential deal, it seems unlikely that Edwards would back the former first lady. Advisor David "Mudcat" Saunders said today, "I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure he does not endorse Hillary Clinton." Saunders doesn't speak for the candidate, but Edwards has criticized Clinton since the campaign began on Iraq, NAFTA, and representing the status quo.
The question regarding an endorsement seems to be whether he will give it to Obama or simply remain on the sidelines. Our sense, pure speculation, is that Edwards is not a man to remain neutral--expect an Obama endorsement and soon.
The far more difficult question to answer is where his supporters will go. Edwards' support seems to be made up of two separate groups, which could split between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In 2004, he campaigned as a Southern centrist who could win in November, attracting much of his support from white blue-collar voters, some of whom stayed with him this cycle. Since the 2004 campaign ended, however, Edwards has moved considerably to the left, attracting a great deal of liberal support and becoming a favorite of the lefty blogosphere.
These voters, 10-15% of the Democratic electorate according to recent national polls, now have a decision to make. Clinton has been more successful in courting blue-collar support, having equaled Edwards in union backing. Of course, Edwards' departure may also allow the anti-Clinton vote to align fully behind Obama. Edwards strongest support has come from white men and they could become the key swing group going forward. Some believe the racial overtones of the campaign will drive these voters to Clinton in the South, while others suggest they've already passed on Clinton and will turn to the next best alternative. In the end, Obama should stand to benefit the most, but perhaps not by as wide a margin as some would suspect.
One thing is clear--Edwards' withdrawal creates a head-to-head battle that will first present itself at a debate in California tomorrow night. With voters across the country now without a candidate, the stakes could not be higher.
Cross-posted at Political Realm.