Could Clinton Have Won If Edwards Hadn't Run?

Elizabeth Edwards, in her new tell-all book, says she asked her husband, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, not to launch a second run for president in 2008 after he admitted to an affair.

Edwards, of course, ran. And now politicos are gaming out whether the Democratic presidential primary race could have had a different result if Edwards had heeded his wife's advice.

Could Hillary Clinton have grabbed Edwards' loyalists and won early, stage-setting contests in Iowa, where Barack Obama emerged as a contender with a stunning win, or later, in the South Carolina primary?

Yes, says Mark Penn, Clinton's close campaign adviser and pollster. Penn has asserted that without Edwards on the ballot, voters would have taken a "fresh look" at Clinton.

But that speculation is simply not backed up by hard data, according to an analysis by Democratic pollster Mark Blumenthal, who is editor and publisher of the popular polling site Pollster.com.

In a Q&A Tuesday with NPR.org, Blumenthal laid out his argument.

There seem to be plenty of victims in the Edwards marriage saga, but you say Hillary Clinton is not one of them. What is your single most compelling piece of evidence?

The most compelling evidence concerns where Edwards' support might have gone, had he withdrawn once the campaign had gotten under way in early 2007: polls showing that Edwards supporters preferred Obama to Clinton as their second choice in Iowa (as early as May 2007) and in New Hampshire (a few days before the primary).

That said, it is really impossible to say how the 2008 campaign "dynamics" might have been different, especially if Edwards had never run, or had he withdrawn in late 2006, just after announcing his candidacy, when Elizabeth Edwards says she urged him to withdraw.

Edwards started the race as the leading candidate in Iowa. Had Edwards withdrawn in late 2006, others who were considering the race at about that time — Tom Vilsack, Evan Bayh, Mark Warner — might have gotten in. Moreover, without Edwards in the race, events might have forced Barack Obama to run a different kind of campaign in Iowa. All of this is unknowable.

Clinton's campaign went off the rails in the first contest in Iowa, so that would seem where one could make the best argument that Edwards' absence would have helped. Could Clinton have prevailed in Iowa?

Every campaign, including the successful one, can produce a list of things they coulda-shoulda-woulda done better. Clinton's was no exception. Unfortunately, we do not get do-overs in this business, so we will never know. What the Iowa polling tells us is that Clinton's problems in Iowa were about much more than just John Edwards.

Edwards was expected to have his best showings in Iowa, where he ran well in the 2004 caucuses, and in South Carolina, where he was born. What does your analysis show in regard to whether Clinton could have won the South Carolina primary without Edwards on the ticket?

All we know for certain is that Barack Obama won with an absolute majority (55 percent) of the vote cast in South Carolina. So it really didn't matter whether those voting for other candidates were divided — Obama would have prevailed against one opponent or two. Of course, if Obama had lost Iowa, the outcome in South Carolina would probably have been very different.

Since Clinton actually won the New Hampshire primary, could Obama's people make a plausible argument that Edwards actually captured votes that could have helped the future president win there?

They have some good evidence for that argument that I cited in my post: Although I could only find one New Hampshire poll that asked about second choices (conducted by Fox News), Edwards' supporters in New Hampshire, as of the final weekend, preferred Obama to Clinton by a nearly 3-to-1 margin (39 percent to 14 percent).

You created a graphic of campaign tracking surveys and what they showed leading up to and after Edwards' withdrawal from the race on Jan. 30, 2008. But you warn that correlation is not causation. What else contributed to voter changes post-Edwards?

What else could have contributed to Obama's sharp rise? Barack Obama won the South Carolina primary on Jan. 26 and received a lot of favorable coverage as a result. Ted and Caroline Kennedy endorsed Obama on Jan. 28. And all that week, both campaigns were running television ads, canvassing and contacting voters in states holding primaries and caucuses on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5.

Bottom line: What effect, if any, did Edwards have on the outcome of the Democratic primary process?

We should not overlook that John Edwards was an important part of the campaign dialogue throughout 2007 and early January 2008. He was the most aggressive in pressing the case against Clinton, especially — as one Edwards supporter reminded me yesterday — when she flubbed her answer regarding drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants in the Philadelphia debate in October 2007. Without Edwards in the race, the "dynamics" might have been different in ways we simply cannot deduce from poll numbers.

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