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Recent public opinion polls show former First Lady and New York Senator Hillary Clinton with a commanding lead in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. An October CBS News poll put Clinton’s support at 51 percent, whereas her two closest competitors, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, registered only 23 percent and 13 percent respectively.
In the critical state of Iowa, Clinton has also pushed ahead, increasing her lead there to 10 points in a recent poll. While Clinton’s frontrunner status is hardly a huge shock, her growing lead in the polls, especially in a rural state such as Iowa, is a bit more surprising and difficult to explain. Indeed, just a few months ago, Barack Obama seemed ready to offer Clinton a serious challenge when his primary fundraising totals topped all presidential candidates in both parties for the first two quarters of 2007. Obama’s fundraising success has been equally impressive in rural America, as the Daily Yonder has documented. Yet, as the polls indicate nationally, Obama has not been able to slow the Clinton machine. Obama’s numbers are considerably better in Iowa, but even there, the recent momentum is clearly with Clinton.
Perhaps, the most surprising development has been the failure of the Edwards campaign not only to tighten the race nationally, but also to build on his strong early support in Iowa. As recently as August 29, a Time Magazine poll indicated that Edwards led Clinton and Obama in Iowa. However, as noted above, Edwards has watched his lead slip away in the Hawkeye state. While Edwards still remains in close striking distance in Iowa and certainly could still win the state, his poll numbers there simply have not moved in the right direction for several months, despite several factors that would seem to be in his favor.
Edwards, for example, has offered voters a genuinely progressive set of policy proposals, many of which would seem especially likely to resonate with rural voters who, according to a recent report , seem especially anxious about their economic future heading into the 2008 election. The Edwards’ platform contrasts sharply with the more cautious policy prescriptions offered by Clinton. In an electoral environment that just a year ago classified voters’ moods as ‘angry,’ Edwards’ populist agenda would seem likely to gain some traction. Unfortunately for Edwards, his boldness has not translated into any gains in recent polls.
In addition to policy proposals, Edwards is a more natural and compelling public speaker than Clinton is, and unlike Clinton and Obama, he has the experience of having run for President and then Vice President just four years ago. Furthermore, Edwards hails from a southern state. That should be an advantage, since the last three Democrats elected to the White House — Johnson, Carter, and Clinton — all came from southern states. At the least, Edwards can make a credible claim that he is the most electable candidate in the field of Democratic candidates. Still, despite these favorable conditions for Edwards, his campaign cannot seem to generate any serious momentum, which begs the simple question:
A recent (Oct. 1-3) Des Moines Register poll sheds some light on Edwards’ problems in Iowa. The poll revealed that a greater percentage of likely caucus-goers cited Clinton as the “best candidate” when it came to the traits of leadership (41 percent), experience (49 percent), toughness (45 percent), intelligence (40 percent), and electability (42 percent). Clinton’s comparatively weakest traits were integrity (17 percent), vision (23 percent), charisma (19 percent), and morality (15 percent).
Former Sen. John Edwards speaking last week to the National Summit on Agriculture and Rural Life in Ames.
Photo: Tim Marema
What appears to be hurting Edwards is that Obama has been better able to convince voters that he is strong in the areas that Clinton is vulnerable. For example, Obama easily trumps Edwards as the most charismatic candidate (48 percent to 19 percent), and performs better than Edwards on the traits of vision (32 percent to 19 percent) and integrity (29 percent to 23 percent). Both men draw equal support on morality (26 percent). For those voters seeking the “anti-Hillary” candidate, these poll results suggest that Obama is better positioned than Edwards to exploit Clinton’s weaknesses with Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa. (Very similar results about Clinton’s vulnerabilities were reported in recent nationwide Gallup Poll as well.)
With respect to policy, Edwards’ progressive economic agenda should have an audience, particularly in rural areas. Additional analysis of survey data from the Pew Center for the People and the Press shows that 54 percent of rural residents and 45 percent of non-rural residents believe that the United States is losing ground in its ability to provide “good paying” jobs. More than 60 percent of rural and non-rural residents also believe that the United States is losing ground in its ability to close the gap between rich and poor.
While there is clearly an audience for Edwards’ message, fewer Americans view him as electable compared to Clinton and Obama, despite Edwards’ southern background. An October Gallup Poll showed that among self-identified Democrats, 90 percent viewed Clinton as having a good to excellent chance of being elected President compared to 75 percent for Obama and only 54 percent for Edwards. Even more damaging for Edwards is that his numbers were stronger in February when 64 percent viewed him as having a good to excellent chance of being elected President. Voters can often be strategic in decision-making at the polls, and if Edwards is perceived as a loser, he may be losing support that he might otherwise be able to attract.
Finally, Clinton’s advantage with women and African Americans in the Democratic Party cannot be understated. Edwards has been able to make little headway with African American voters. (Clinton has even opened a wide lead over Obama among black registered Democrats, 57 to 33 percent.) According to a survey from EMILY’s List, Clinton is far ahead of the entire Democratic field among women. Edwards’ inability to gain any traction with these two groups of voters puts him at a considerable disadvantage in the Democratic primary.
Thus, despite the best efforts of the Edwards campaign to raise issues concerning economic justice, which have particular relevance in rural America, the Clinton campaign remains dominant, while the Obama campaign seems best positioned to upset Clinton in the unlikely event that circumstances change in the next few months.
Peter L. Francia is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC.