In the beginning (of the Democratic presidential nomination process) there was Senator Hillary Clinton and there was everyone else. Something happened along the way and the candidate voted Most Certain to Succeed found herself in a tough race. Senator Barack Obama has managed to stay close to the once and once-again front-runner. He’s likely to win in South Carolina next week, which will give his campaign a boost going into the February 5th elections when more than 20 states will select delegates. In fact, more than half the delegates attending the nominating convention will be determined that day.
February 5th can’t come soon enough for the Clinton campaign. With so many caucuses and primaries occurring on one day, the retail elections are over. This is the closest America comes to a national primary. And in this kind of election Senator Clinton has two advantages: 1) she’s the best known candidate and can boast of broad support everywhere; and 2) her opponents are divided. While her victory in Nevada shows she can win a majority of the votes in a state (with 98 percent of the Nevada’s precincts counted she has 51 percent to Senator Obama’s 45 percent. Interestingly, he’s likely to have earned one more delegate from today’s caucuses than did Senator Clinton).
February 5th is when Senator Clinton can put the nomination away. To do so, however, she’ll have to deflate the Obama boom. He’s got at least one, potential, advantage going into Super Tuesday. He’s built a significant lead in South Carolina, the last remaining primary between now and the first Tuesday in February. If he’s to have a chance that day, he’ll need the boost to his momentum only a victory in South Carolina can provide.
Former Senator John Edwards needs to win in South Carolina, too. He’s a native son of the state and it’s the only primary he won in his unsuccessful 2004 presidential campaign. He represented the state’s northern neighbor for six years in the U.S. Senate. If he can’t win in South Carolina it’s unlikely he’ll win anywhere. And it’s unlikely he’ll win in South Carolina.
If New Hampshire taught us anything it’s not to believe in the polls. Which is why Senator Edwards will and should continue to make a strong effort there even though the polls show he’s a distant third in the state. Real Clear Politics is a web site that, among other things, tracks and averages polls throughout the country. Their average for the Democratic Primary in South Carolina has Senator Obama in the lead with 43.2 percent (how’s that for false precision? Poll results to the tenth percent!). Senator Clinton follows with 33.6 percent and Senator Edwards averages only 13.2 percent (to complete the picture, The surveys in the average were published within the week. In none of them did Senator Edwards pull in more than 15 percent support.
(Again, these are polls we’re talking about. Sometimes they’re right. The Real Clear Politics average for the Republican primary in South Carolina had Senator John McCain edging out former Governor Mike Huckabee 26.9 percent to 25.9 percent. Former Governor Mitt Romney was third with 14.7 percent followed by former Senator Fred Thompson with 14.6 percent. The results: with 95 percent of the precincts in, Senator McCain was ahead 33 percent to 30 percent for Governor Huckabee. Senator Thompson was third with 16 percent followed by Governor Romney with 15 percent. As I said, sometimes they’re right, but sometimes they’re wrong. The problem is we don’t know which is when until after the election.)
A lot can happen in a week. Senator Clinton may get a bump coming out of Nevada. One of the other candidates may stumble creating an opening for Senator Edwards. Under the radar negative campaigning may make a difference. Anything could happen.
But what will most likely happen is that Senator Edwards will finish a distant third. He’s pledged to stay in the race until the convention, but he has to say that, at least through next Saturday. If he were to hint he was calling it quits beforethe primary the result would be that many of his supporters would likely shift to a candidate they think can win.
So it’s not a question of what he says before South Carolina, it’s what he does afterward that matters. Staying in the race after a poor showing there would be, at best, quixotic and at worst egotistical. Some might argue that by continuing on he’ll garner enough delegates to deadlock the convention, making himself the king/queen maker. But that’s a long shot, especially since his staying in the race likely helps Senator Clinton sew up the nomination.
All three of the candidates have earned support based on their personalities, experience and policies. But let’s face it, some folks are supporting Senators Obama and Edwards because they don’t want to see Senator Clinton get the nomination. Right now this anti-Clinton vote is split, which works to her advantage. If Senator Edwards were out of the race, most of these voters would wind up backing Senator Obama.
It’s also likely more than a majority of Senator Edward’s true blue supporters consider Senator Obama their second choice. After all, their messages are very similar. It’s their styles and approach that differs greatly. Added to Senator Obama’s already substantial support these Edwards campaign refugees could make a difference in some states on February 5th. Perhaps enough of a difference to keep the Obama Brigade marching forward. And maybe enough to win him the nomination.
Of course, helping Senator Obama’s campaign may not be a consideration for Senator Edwards. He may not see much of a difference between him and Senator Clinton.
Or Senator Edwards may stay in the race beyond February 5th simply because that’s what he wants to do. It’s his right and his choice to make. It’s a decision that won’t make him the nominee, but it’s one that will likely influence who is.