What if he had followed the hindsight-is-20-20 advice being offered now by his wife and chief strategist, and decided against another run for the White House because of the risk that his extra-marital affair would become public?
ABC News put that question to Mark Penn, who was Hillary Rodham Clinton’s chief pollster and strategist during much of her 2008 campaign.
Penn acknowledged that all of this is unknowable. But he said that if Edwards backers had been up for grabs in Iowa and beyond, Clinton would have had a much better chance at defeating Barack Obama.
“No question in my mind, it would have been a very different race if he hadn’t run,” Penn said. “Most likely it would have been a two-way race and would have released a lot of voters who focused on demographics . . . voters who would later vote for Hillary Clinton.”
Edwards had placed second in the Iowa caucuses in 2004 and was strong there from the start. If he wasn’t a factor, that may have helped Clinton, Penn said.
“If he had come out and dropped out of the race particularly early, I think a lot of voters would have taken a good fresh look at Hillary Clinton,” he said. “Remember they supported Edwards ’cause they thought he was honest and trustworthy. And then they had questions about her being honest and trustworthy. And so if that equation had been reversed, she might well have picked up those votes.”
Clinton placed third in Iowa and then rebounded to win New Hampshire — only to fall to Obama in what turned out to be a far longer primary season than anyone anticipated.
Winning the first two states to vote would have placed any candidate “pretty much on the road and unstoppable,” Penn said.
“If [Edwards] would have dropped out there would have been a real contest for those votes,” he added. “And Obama might have won those votes. The history in the race further out was that Hillary was very successful getting Obama’s voters.
“If [Edwards] had dropped out early or not run at all, she would have had a much greater opportunity to get those voters. And if he dropped out explaining why he dropped out, she would have had an even bigger opportunity because people would have thought they were wrong about Edwards, and maybe they had been wrong about Hilary and might have opened a lot of voters to her.”
“It would have been a different race,” Penn said. “We will never know for sure . . . but it will be the woulda, coulda, shoulda of this race.”
Edwards placed second in Iowa but fizzled in subsequent primaries and caucuses. He dropped out of the race Jan. 30 and endorsed Obama in May — when Obama was considered the prohibitive frontrunner, but before Clinton dropped out of the race.
John Edwards publicly confessed the affair with Hunter in an interview with ABC in August of 2008.
Joe Trippi, who was Edwards’ senior political adviser for the 2008 campaign, echoed that response in an e-mail to ABC News Thursday.