Sabato's Crystal Ball

Veep! Veep! It’s Edwards!

Will Kerry prove wily in his choice for number two?

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics July 6th, 2004

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Our long wait is over, and John Kerry has given us all a lot to chew on with the selection of North Carolina U.S. Sen. John Edwards to be his Democratic Party running-mate for vice president.

THE IMMEDIATE CONSEQUENCES in the Crystal Ball are twofold:

  1. We are changing North Carolina from Solid Bush to Leans Bush. Even though Edwards will make North Carolina competitive, Bush’s 56 percent in 2000 is a mountain to climb for Kerry. Moreover, the one-term Edwards has never been terribly popular in his home state, and he essentially abandoned his Senate seat to seek the presidency (he has one of the worst attendance records in the Senate). He won his first and only office in 1998 with just 51 percent of the vote, and polls during his tenure have found his job approval to be anemic – often near 40 percent. Still, the enormous burst of positive publicity with his VP selection should push Kerry-Edwards into a tie with, or even above, Bush-Cheney in North Carolina. Our guess is that this will be a temporary bump, but Edwards’ campaign skills are such that the Bush campaign will unexpectedly have to spend considerable sums in the state, and it can take nothing for granted. Plus, should Kerry-Edwards continue to pick up momentum, the Tar Heel State might well become winnable for the two Democrats in November. Obviously, a victory for Kerry in the heart of Bush’s Southern base would likely prove fatal to Bush’s reelection chances. We’re not there yet, though. Furthermore, we currently do not see Edwards having any real effect on North Carolina’s Bush-leaning Southern neighbors: Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. The only state in this group that Edwards won in the Democratic primaries was South Carolina, and the Palmetto State is one of the least likely to defect from the Bush column. Edwards was born in South Carolina, though, so it will be interesting to see whether he attempts to turn conventional wisdom on its head there. Bush will likely win but there could be some effect on the relatively close U.S. Senate contest, currently leaning Republican.
  2. We are changing the North Carolina U.S. Senate race from Toss-Up to Leans Democratic. Already, Democratic nominee Erskine Bowles has been steadily leading Republican nominee Congressman Richard Burr. Bowles seems to have learned a lot about campaigning from his unsuccessful 2002 contest with Republican Elizabeth Dole, who defeated him handily. Also, the burden of Bill Clinton, for whom Bowles served as chief of staff in the White House, has eased a bit with the passage of time. By no means does Bowles have this seat locked up, and the current advantage for him is slight. Yet Edwards’ nomination really does add a jolt of energy to Bowles’ prospects. A Bush/Bowles split ticket in the Tar Heel State is a distinct possibility.

What about John Edwards’ pluses and minuses for the Democratic presidential ticket?

Pluses

  1. Democratic partisans love him. He’s consistently led the national polls as the candidate Democratic leaders and activists would most want to be the vice-presidential nominee.
  2. Edwards’ energy and charisma are much needed on this ticket. Even though Edwards clearly upstages the boring and somnolent Kerry when they share a platform, Kerry must have decided that a charisma transplant for the ticket would help him get to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – which is the goal, after all.
  3. During the primaries, Edwards showed a greater appeal than Kerry to Independents, one of the crucial swing voter blocs. Let’s also note, though, that Independents who participate in Democratic primaries are NOT necessarily representative of Independents generally; they tend to be considerably more liberal than the group of all Independents.
  4. Edwards’ blue-collar background provides a good balance to Kerry’s silver spoon upbringing. While Kerry is a graduate of Yale University, Edwards was the first in his family to go to college, and attended N.C. State University.
  5. Democrats want to contest the South, and Edwards’ Southern accent and identity permit them to do so credibly, at least in a few states below the Mason-Dixon line.
  6. Generally, Edwards’ Senate vote ratings are more moderate than Kerry’s, and so Edwards provides some ideological balance to the liberal Massachusetts legislator. It must be noted, though, that Edwards’ group ratings have become quite liberal in recent years as he began to seek the presidency. At best, he is probably a moderate-liberal to Kerry’s solid liberal identity.
  7. A vigorous, personable John Edwards provides a dramatic contrast with his personal opponent, Vice President Dick Cheney. Cheney is seen as cold, aloof, less than the picture of health, and scandal-tainted.

Minuses

  1. John Kerry cannot possibly claim that Edwards was the most qualified and experienced candidate available to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. Edwards has a very thin public resume, with a single Senate term under his belt. He is noted for little in the Senate, and as mentioned earlier, he’s been absent a great deal from his Senate work. The “experience gap” with other potential VP nominees, such as Dick Gephardt and Bob Graham, is enormous. Edwards could easily be classed with other barely-experienced VP-nominees in modern times: Bill Miller (R-1964), Spiro Agnew (R-1968), Geraldine Ferraro (D-1984), and Dan Quayle (R-1988). In the post-9/11 world, is Edwards’ skimpy resume good enough? And here is where Dick Cheney will shine in any side-by-side comparison, not to mention the vice-presidential debate in the fall.
  2. While some see him as charismatic, others see him as slick. Supporters often compare him to Bill Clinton, meaning it as a compliment to his ability to connect emotionally with a crowd. It won’t be long before opponents are also comparing him to the former president in less favorable ways. Slick Johnny, meet Slick Willie? And where’s the gravitas? Edwards looks to be barely out of law school… and not very presidential.
  3. Unlike other potential VP nominees, Edwards does not have a secure home base. Bob Graham could carry Florida, Tom Vilsack could carry Iowa, and so on. Edwards’ hold on North Carolina appears shaky indeed. And as we have already argued, Edwards doesn’t carry much or any weight in other Southern states.
  4. Edwards is a wealthy trial lawyer, one of the least liked occupations in America. Yes, we know that Edwards has been able to turn this to his advantage in prior years by citing tear-jerking cases of big business and medical abuse of the “little guy.” But there is no hothouse like presidential politics, and for all the vetting he’s been put through, we wonder whether all his cases will hold up to critical scrutiny–assuming the Republicans and the news media do their jobs.
  5. If Edwards has so much voter appeal, then why did he get so few votes in the Democratic primaries? Lest we forget, Edwards won only his two native states, North and South Carolina. He was slaughtered even in the Southern states (such as Tennessee and Virginia) that are neighbors to the state he represents in the Senate.

The Crystal Ball has tried to give a fair “instant analysis” here, but no doubt many more telling arguments will arise in the course of the next four months. We close with a worthy reminder. Just about all the research in the elections field has concluded that vice-presidential candidates rarely make much difference at all. True, in an extremely close election such as 2000, a VP nominee may add or subtract enough votes to make the difference – along with a hundred other factors. But in the end, as always, the election of 2004 will come down to a choice between George W. Bush and John F. Kerry. The two candidates for Number Two will be an afterthought for most voters, and as the Veep Hullabaloo unfolds over the next few weeks, we all ought to keep this in mind.