Mark Blumenthal | May 11, 2009
Topics: Barack Obama , Hillary Clinton , Iowa , John Edwards , Mark Penn
The publication of a new book by Elizabeth Edwards, and especially the revelation that she advised her husband against running in 2008, has created a lot of "what if" speculation about how the race might have been different. Two weeks ago, for example, Hillary Clinton's former pollster Mark Penn speculated that a 2008 presidential race without John Edwards would have been "very different," adding "if he had come out and dropped out of the race particularly early, I think a lot of voters would have taken a good fresh look at Hillary Clinton."
Then this weekend, George Stephanopoulos reported that "by late December, early January of last year" several members of Edwards' "inner circle" began to believe the rumors about their candidate's affair and "devised a 'doomsday' strategy of sorts...basically, if it looked like Edwards was going to win the Democratic Party nomination, they were going to sabotage his campaign." Mickey Kaus read the report and wondered about the impact of the votes Edwards "drained" while "staying in the race through South Carolina."
Now with the stipulation that Edwards strategist Joe Trippi is calling the "doomsday" story "Complete BS -- fantasyland - not true" (update: CNN has more), what can we say about where Edwards' support might have gone had he left the race earlier than he did?
Let's work backwards.
After Edwards Actually Dropped Out - Probably the best evidence we have is from the tracking surveys that showed what happened when Edward actually departed the race on January 30, 2008. See our chart below. The change in aggregate vote preference surged to Barack Obama.
Let's be a little more specific. The regression line smooths things out (as it is designed to do), but note the change in the dots, the individual survey results. The biggest lurch in support over the course of the two year campaign occurs for Obama just after Edwards dropped out (when pollsters stopped including his name on vote preference questions). Just before the Edwards announcement, most polls showed Obama's support in the mid-30s. Just after, his support surged the mid-40s. Over the same period, Hillary Clinton's aggregate support held mostly steady.
Now my pollster handbook requires the warning that correlation is not causation. The big spike in Obama's support may have also been the result of the other things happening in that period (endorsements from the Kennedy family, a surge in paid media and organizing in Super Tuesday states, positive coverage of Obama's successes in South Carolina and, eventually, on Super Tuesday).
Although others with access to respondent level data from Gallup or the Annenberg surveys may be able to check these trends more carefully, from what we can see, the evidence we have says that Edwards' actual departure helped Obama more than Clinton.
Before South Carolina? - Edwards "drained votes from somebody" in the South Carolina primary, says Kaus. True. But Obama won South Carolina with 55% of the vote, so even if every Edwards vote there had been drained from Clinton, Obama still would have prevailed by double digits. Moreover, keep in mind that the final polls in SC massively understated Obama's ultimate share of the vote (a bigger error than New Hampshire), while getting the percentages for Edwards and Clinton about right. Given that understatement, and if we assume for the sake of argument that all of Edwards' SC votes would have immediately shifted to Clinton had he left the race right after New Hampshire, we would have seen a final round of SC polls showing a neck-and-neck Obama Clinton race and a big "surprise" Obama victory on January 26.
Before New Hampshire? - Probably the least plausible hypothetical involves Edwards dropping just after Iowa and before the New Hampshire primary. But if he had, what might have become of the 17% of the New Hampshire vote he received? Of the four polls that provided raw, respondent level data to the Roper Archives, only the Fox News poll included a second choice question. Those who said they were supporting John Edwards on the final survey (n=94, conducted January 4-6, 2008) reported their second choices as follows: Obama 38%, Clinton 14%, Richardson 13%, Kucinich 4% with the rest choosing another candidate or unable to provide a second choice. Yes, that final round of New Hampshire polling notoriously understated Clinton's support, but this result is not exactly strong evidence that Edwards was "draining" more support from Clinton than Obama.
Before Iowa? - Just after Penn's speculation about Iowa appeared, Tom Beaumont of the Des Moines Register produced results from the second choice question on the final Register survey conducted by pollster Ann Selzer:
The Des Moines Register's Iowa Poll, taken in the closing days of the caucus campaign, showed that in fact Obama was the second choice of more Edwards supporters than Clinton was. The numbers? Among Edwards' supporters, 41 percent said Obama was their second choice, compared to 25 percent who said Clinton was their second choice.
Since Penn's speculation was more about how the long Iowa campaign would have transpired had Edwards dropped out at the very outset (rather than in its final days), I asked Selzer about their earlier poll conducted in May 2007. The survey showed a very close race: Edwards ahead with 29% followed by Obama at 23% and Clinton at 21%. But had Edwards not been a candidate, his supporters would have split decisively for Obama. With the second choices recalculated into the total, Obama would have led Clinton by nine percentage points on that first Iowa poll.
Penn was right to concede that it is "unknowable" how the Iowa campaign might have played out without Edwards in it. Who knows what would have happened had Edwards dropped out before the Iowa campaign got underway. Other candidates -- Bayh, Warner, Vilsack -- may have gotten or stayed in. But the Register data strongly suggest that Clinton's problems in Iowa were about much more than just John Edwards.