Ballot Box

The Exit and the Polls

What happened on Super Tuesday.

10:00 p.m.: Two weeks ago, I pointed out that John Edwards had beaten John Kerry among independents in four of the last eight primaries in which that number had been measured. Worse yet, Edwards had beaten Kerry among crossover Republicans in the last six primaries in which that number had been measured. The implication was that Edwards might be more electable than Kerry.

How did that theory hold up in today’s primaries? Let’s look at the numbers. To be extra fair to Edwards, I’ll focus on the five exit-polled states in which he campaigned. Here’s how he did vis-à-vis Kerry among independents and crossover Republicans:

Table 1IndependentsCrossover Republicans
New York2638N/AN/A

Not exactly a compelling stat line for Edwards. He did beat Kerry among crossover Republicans in three of the four states in which that number was measured. But Kerry beat him convincingly among crossover Republicans in California—the country’s most populous state—breaking Edwards’ unbeaten streak in that category. More important, Kerry beat Edwards among independents in three of the five contested exit-polled states. (Kerry’s win in Maryland was narrow, but so was Edwards’ win in Ohio.) That’s consistent with Kerry’s previous record. He beat Edwards among independents in six of the first 10 exit-polled contests.

I’m not saying these polls perfectly reflected the preferences of most independents. In Maryland, for example, registered independents like me couldn’t vote in the Democratic primary. But to substantiate the argument that he was more electable, Edwards needed to beat Kerry among self-described independents in most of the states he targeted today. He didn’t.

The numbers only get worse for Edwards when you factor in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, the three states in which Edwards was on the ballot but didn’t campaign. Kerry won independents in all three states. (Republicans couldn’t vote.)

Worse yet for Edwards, Kerry won “agrees with you” voters in four of today’s five key states. (Edwards won them in Georgia.) These are the voters who say they chose their candidate because he “agrees with you on the issues,” not because he “can defeat Bush.” They aren’t voting on electability. They’re voting for the guy they want. Before today, they had voted for Edwards in four of the last eight states. Today, they went for Kerry.

I’ve heard a lot of explanations for why Edwards, despite his talents, couldn’t win more than one primary this year. But the thing that stands out to me is a question at the tail end of every exit poll: “Which one candidate quality mattered most in deciding how you voted today?” In Georgia, among voters who chose “cares about me,” “honest and trustworthy,” or “positive message,” Edwards creamed Kerry. Among those who chose “stands up for what he believes,” the candidates tied. Among those who chose “can defeat Bush,” Kerry crushed Edwards. But if most of the folks who voted in Georgia today preferred Edwards on the other criteria, why did they think Kerry was more likely to defeat Bush? The answer, I think, lies in the final category: voters who chose their candidate because he had the “right experience.” Those voters went for Kerry by a devastating margin of 80-14.

This was the landslide number in every state. In Ohio, Edwards beat Kerry among “cares about me,” “honest and trustworthy,” and “positive message” voters. Kerry won “stands up for what he believes” voters and demolished Edwards 71-19 among “right experience” voters. In New York, Edwards ran close to Kerry in most categories but lost “right experience” voters 82-7. In Maryland, the Kerry margin in that group was 83-8. In California, it was 81-6.

True, in all of these states, the “right experience” vote was much smaller than the “can defeat Bush” vote. But by process of elimination, it looks to me as though the first judgment was the basis for the second.

The good news for Edwards is that experience is easy to acquire. The bad news for Kerry is that caring and honesty aren’t.

8:30 p.m.: So, this is the guy.

I still can’t quite believe it. Here’s John Kerry, basically accepting the Democratic nomination for president. I never thought it would happen. For months I watched him talk to Iowans as though human were his second language. I still think it is. But Iowans decided they didn’t want Howard Dean, and Kerry, with his moderation, combat service, and foreign policy experience, seemed a safe alternative. That idea looked equally sensible to folks in New Hampshire, Missouri, Virginia, and Ohio. So, here we are.

Watching Kerry address the crowd tonight, I have to chuckle at recent articles that have marveled at his so-called transformation. Come on. This is the same guy we saw last year. He talks like a senator from 50 years ago, determined to carry himself with all the pomp and bombast befitting a statesman. Granted, he’s been trying to overcome this instinct. But it’s still his instinct.

Tonight, Kerry lavishes praise on John Edwards, puncturing the new CW that he and Edwards dislike each other. I’ve thought all along that this rift was overhyped: The little jabs thrown between them were nothing like the brawl between George W. Bush and John McCain, or between Bush’s dad and Ronald Reagan.

“We will build one America of freedom and of fairness for all,” Kerry tells the crowd. This is his first explicit homage to Edwards. Kerry has lifted lots of other Edwards lines in recent weeks, but they’ve all been unacknowledged thefts. Kerry did the same thing to Dean in Iowa. Tonight he lauds Dean for “bringing so many who were disenfranchised into our party.” Kerry adds hopefully, “I know he will continue to fight to do that.” But the sincerest flattery he offers Dean is imitation. The message of this campaign, the new Kerry declares, is that “change is coming to America.”

Kerry previews the military allusions we can expect in the months to come. “I am a fighter,” he says. For more than 30 years, “I’ve been on the battle lines.” Unfortunately, one of the wars Kerry seems intent on refighting is the one his consultant, Bob Shrum, waged four years ago through Al Gore. “There are powerful forces that want America to continue on exactly the path that’s it on today,” Kerry warns. I don’t know about you, but I’d pay good money never to hear the phrase “powerful forces” again.

When Kerry pledges to repeal any tax break that “rewards any corporation” for moving jobs overseas, I exhale with relief at the disappearance of his tired stock reference to Benedict Arnold. Later, he promises to “fight as never before for worker protections and for environmental protections” in trade agreements. “As never before”? Is that really what Kerry meant to say, or was it a slip? It sounds like a confession that either 1) he didn’t fight hard enough for such protections before this campaign, or 2) he’s now going to fight harder for them, for political reasons, than he believes is economically wise.

The two most important passages in Kerry’s speech come toward the end. The first concerns gay marriage. “George Bush, who promised to become a uniter, has become the great divider,” says Kerry. “Just last week, he proposed to amend the Constitution of the United States for political purposes. And we say that he has no right to misuse the most precious document in our history in an effort to divide this nation and distract us from our goals.” This is a smart approach, pitting Bush against the Constitution rather than against gay marriage. But it underscores Kerry’s longstanding habit, illustrated by his frequent invocations of the Employment Non-discrimination Act, of refusing to let anyone know that what he’s talking about has anything to do with homosexuality.

The other significant passage in Kerry’s speech recalls his years not as a soldier but as a war protester. “When I first led veterans to the mall here in Washington to stop the war in Vietnam, it was a time of doubt and fear in this land,” he says. “It was a time when millions of Americans could not trust or believe what their leaders were telling them. And now today, Americans are once again wondering if they can trust or believe the leadership of our country. Our campaign is about restoring that faith.”

Holy cow. When Dean compared Bush to Richard Nixon last year, I thought he was going over the top. Now the supposedly cautious guy who wrested the nomination from Dean is signaling that he’ll push that comparison in the general election. I think it’s a reach, and a dangerous one. But I’ve been wrong about Kerry many times before.

6:45 p.m.: As John Edwards takes the stage to address his supporters after being creamed in today’s primaries, it occurs to me that there’s one bright side to getting wiped out of the race: At least he knows John Kerry won’t feel it necessary to bump him off the air tonight.

Usually Edwards wears a body mike so he can gesture with both hands. Tonight, for some reason, he’s been given a mike that has to be held in one hand. He shuffles it back and forth, gesturing first with his left arm and then with his right.

Edwards has spent the past two months complaining that there are “two Americas,” one for the rich and one for everybody else. Evidently even he seems to have decided that this message is wearing thin. Tonight he talks very little about two Americas. Instead, he talks about the “one America” he’ll build.

Well, actually, he won’t be the one building it. That became clear (for those who weren’t privy to the exit polls this afternoon) just before Edwards took the stage, as the Associated Press reported that he would pull out of the race. Edwards doesn’t say as much in his remarks tonight, but he does effusively “congratulate my friend,” Sen. Kerry. “He’s been an extraordinary advocate for causes that all of us believe in: more jobs,” health care, a safer environment, and a safer world, says Edwards. This is one of those moments when you realize how fake campaigns are. Edwards spent the last several weeks telling voters in South Carolina, Wisconsin, and Ohio that Kerry has been a less reliable advocate for jobs than Edwards has been. Now that the race is effectively over, and the only path to advancement is through kissing Kerry’s ring, Edwards testifies that Kerry has been “an extraordinary advocate” for jobs all along. When I worked at the Hotline, we once wrote a spoof of Jingle Bells that captured the absurdity of reversals such as this one. The line went, “Was I lying to you then, or am I lying now?”

It quickly becomes clear that Edwards intends to apply his lips to Kerry’s ring with exemplary vigor. “It wasn’t very long ago that the pundits and the pollsters were saying that come Super Tuesday, there wouldn’t even be anybody named John competing for the nomination,” says Edwards. “Well, the truth is, John Kerry and John Edwards have both proven those pundits and pollsters wrong. And we’re proud of that.”

This seems to be Edwards’ less-than-compelling rebuttal to articles in recent days that have suggested he and Kerry don’t get along. Don’t be silly, says Edwards. Look at what we have in common: He’s a John, and so am I.

Edwards goes on at length about two issues I didn’t expect him to focus on in his final primary night speech: poverty and race. I don’t see how these issues help him sell himself as Kerry’s running mate. Here I have to tip my hat to Edwards: I can think of no reason why he would talk about these issues tonight except that he cares about them. Good for him.

As Edwards wraps up, I’m reminded that there is one thing he and Kerry have in common that I hope they don’t reprise as a ticket: an infatuation with “the politics of” this and that. This perfectly meaningless phrase, which annoyed me last year when it signified Kerry’s self-importance, began to annoy me this year as it came to signify Edwards’ liquid salesmanship. “Our campaign has never been about the politics of cynicism,” Edwards tells the crowd tonight. “It’s about the politics of hope. It’s about the politics of what’s possible.”

Well, tonight it’s about the politics of what isn’t possible: winning the nomination. What’s possible now, judging from Edwards’ remarks, is the politics of sucking up.

4:30 p.m.: I knew John Edwards was in trouble when I called the Maryland Democratic Party on Feb. 18, the day after the Wisconsin primary, to find out whether I could register as a Democrat in time to vote in Maryland’s Democratic Primary, which took place today. The answer was no. I asked when the deadline for registering as a Democrat had passed. The answer was that if I were a new Maryland resident, I could have earned the right to vote in the primary if I had registered as a Democrat by Feb. 10. But since I’m a registered independent, I would have had to switch my registration by Dec. 8, 2003. That’s three months before my state voted and six weeks before Iowa provided any reason to think Edwards might become a viable candidate.

On Sunday a guy from the Edwards campaign called my house trolling for votes. He didn’t ask to speak to me, since I’m not on the list of registered Democrats. He asked to speak to my wife, who is. I handed the phone to her and stood there while she told the poor guy that she intended to vote for Kerry because she wanted to get the primaries over with and unite the party against Bush.

There you have it. Electability-oriented Democrats like my wife could vote in most of today’s primaries. Independents like me couldn’t. It’s hard to imagine a more effective mechanism for filtering out the Edwards vote. For three weeks, I’ve been crunching numbers to substantiate the theory that Edwards’ fate rested on the participation of independents. Today I lived it.