Ever since John Edwards dropped out in January “so that history can blaze its path,” he has been careful not to get in history’s way. Even when his endorsement would have carried real weight—before North Carolina, for example—he was quiet. It almost seemed like he was going far out of his way to make sure his endorsement didn’t matter.
Well, sorry John, but it still matters. Not because it will change the race’s outcome—that was the point of waiting. It matters because it helps redeem Obama among the white working class.
The story line coming out of Obama’s West Virginia thumping is that white working-class voters abandoned him in record numbers, and for possibly ugly reasons. Clinton picked up 69 percent of the white vote, and of the voters who said race influenced their vote, 82 percent went for Clinton. No one thinks Obama’s 40-point loss was enough to derail his campaign. But it does raise tough questions about whether Democrats want a nominee with such paltry support among a potentially key demographic. To put it bluntly: With Kentucky just around the corner, Obama needed some white cred.
Enter John Edwards. By endorsing Obama now, Edwards isn’t handing him the nomination. He’s minimizing the damage wrought upon the all-but-inevitable nominee. Clinton insists a drawn-out election isn’t hurting the party. But it is clearly exposing huge holes in each candidate’s armor. By weighing in now, Edwards is reassuring Democrats—and perhaps telegraphing to Kentucky voters—that Obama is a safe choice.
Plus, Edwards is still influential. Just look at the 7 percent of the vote he picked up in West Virginia—impressive for someone who dropped out more than three months ago. If Edwards supporters in Kentucky take his cue and vote for Obama, it could tighten the margin of victory a bit. Also, cue speculation that Edwards’ 19 delegates will now swing to Obama, pushing him ever closer to 2025. (See Slate ’s Explainer on what happens to Edwards’ delegates .) Expect renewed VP speculation as well, especially if Edwards paints himself as the man who could deliver the working class to Obama.
But Edwards’ endorsement isn’t the last round of battle; it’s the first round of cleanup. Both Democratic candidates insist the party will unite once a nominee is chosen. Edwards’ move tells party officials, more than any endorsement so far, that that moment has arrived.