Following Iowa’s caucus shake-up six weeks ago, a slogan emerged to describe new Kerry supporters: “Dated Dean, married Kerry.” With Dean now officially out of the picture, many Democrats appear ready to seal the deal with the Massachusetts Senator.
What, exactly, is Mr. Kerry’s appeal? Kerry courted Democratic primary voters almost entirely with his “electability,” a fickle term used to describe voter perceptions of a candidate’s ability to win an election. But if electability is what smitten Democrats want, they should remove their love goggles before walking down the aisle and look at the Best Man, John Edwards.
Edwards is a charismatic, eloquent speaker and appeals to independent and conservative-minded voters from key electoral battlegrounds. Kerry, on the other hand, represents the Democrats’ crusty New England base and too often relies on others to do the eloquent, passionate speaking. The media labeled him the candidate of electability and inevitability, but those are transitory labels that could flameout by summer.
The best way to assess electability is to focus on that tiny slice of voters who won’t make up their minds until just before Election Day. Whether you call them NASCAR dads or soccer moms, these are the voters who will determine the outcome of the election.
Edwards has already shown he can win swing voters. Exit polls from South Carolina to Wisconsin revealed Edwards won support from independents and a surprisingly strong number of disillusioned Republicans. By contrast, Kerry is winning largely due to the support of liberals. While these bandwagon liberal voters might win Kerry a Democratic primary, he’ll need more in the general election.
At this point, Kerry supporters are probably screaming, “What about his military record?” Actually, they probably aren’t screaming – and that’s the problem. Kerry supporters aren’t that passionate. Why? Because Kerry isn’t. Despite his three Purple Hearts, most people don’t find him especially heartening.
The ability to connect with voters is intangible; Edwards has it but Kerry doesn’t. Just observe their rallies or talk to their supporters. There is a sense that Edwards, the first in his family to go to college, “gets it.”
In his eloquent “Two Americas” speech, Edwards shows why James Carville recently likened his speaking ability to former President Bill Clinton’s. His message transcends improving economic figures and shows that economic health is about more than GDP and stock values – it’s about good jobs and stable families. Ultimately, the candidate who “gets it” will garner more passionate, sustained support than the aloof candidate with the warrior resume.
Some pundits say Kerry’s 1996 Senate campaign would be the model for his general election strategy. Kerry scored a resounding victory that year after initially lagging far behind William Weld, Massachusetts’s popular Republican governor. But the dynamics of Massachusetts politics can’t be applied to the rest of the nation. Massachusetts has voted reliably for Democrats in modern presidential elections, and, unless there’s a deep freeze in hell, will do so again in 2004, whomever the nominee is.
Instead, Edwards’ 1998 defeat of the Jesse Helms political machine in North Carolina presents a far more compelling case for electability. Edwards took on Lauch Faircloth, a protg of North Carolina’s elder statesman Helms. Given North Carolina’s history – Republicans have carried the state in every presidential election since the disco era – conventional wisdom gave Faircloth an enormous advantage. Faircloth called Edwards too liberal for North Carolina. But Edwards ran a positive campaign, telling voters in his final ad to reject “old negative politics” and to vote “their hopes, not their fears,” and he won the election. Sound familiar?
Edwards has proven he can win in GOP country; in fact, he’s the only Democrat beating Bush in North Carolina polls. Karl Rove badly needs the Tar Heel state’s 15 electoral votes, and Edwards is the only one who can put up a fight.
Granted, things can and will change before Election Day, and Kerry could pull another surprise and send Bush back to his Texas ranch. But with charisma and swing voter appeal, Edwards is the safer bet.
If Kerry clinches the nomination tomorrow, the Dean daters who married Kerry might just find themselves waking up Nov. 3 with Bush, only wishing they’d given Edwards a chance. Hopefully the bride will get cold feet.
-The writer, a sophomore, is a Hatchet production assistant.
This article appeared in the March 1, 2004 issue of the Hatchet.