It wasn’t quite “Dewey Defeats Truman,” but the New York Post has egg on its face this morning. The paper’s cover story announced that John Kerry was about to select Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt as his running mate. A few hours later, Kerry did indeed announce a running mate, but it wasn’t Gephardt. Instead, it was the populist Senator from North Carolina, John Edwards. The Post had quoted “unnamed sources,” but it is hard to imagine that the right-leaning New York tabloid is any Democratic insider’s first call. More likely, the Dems were having a little joke at the Post’s expense.
According to news reports over the last week, three candidates were at the top of Kerry’s list: Edwards, Gephardt, and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. It’s hard for me to see how Vilsack ever made it that far. I’m sure he’s a competent governor, but he’s virtually unknown outside of his home state. Collective yawns would have greeted his appointment, and more yawning is the last thing the Kerry campaign needed.
The choice between Gephardt and Edwards was a lot tougher. Gephardt is a seasoned national campaigner, and there’s little doubt he would be a capable President if something happened to Kerry. After more than twenty years in the spotlight, it’s unlikely Gephardt would commit a major blunder, and it’s equally unlikely that any surprises are lurking in his background. If ever the words “squeaky clean” applied to anyone, it’s Gephardt. He also polls strongly with the union voters who could help Kerry capture the midwestern industrial states that the Democrats must win to beat Bush. Lastly, Gephardt hails from Missouri, which practically defines the phrase “bellweather state.” No one since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 has won the Presidency without winning Missouri.
But Gephardt is often singularly unexciting — just as Kerry is. He has trouble turning on an audience, unless it is an audience of people who are already rabid supporters. Those aren’t the supporters Kerry needs; they’re voting for him already. Gephardt has polled poorly both times he ran for President, and there’s a good reason for it. The political influence of union households has been waning for the last twenty years, and most non-union Americans perceive Gephardt as being far too liberal. Among many conservative-leaning and undecided voters, the prospect of a Vice President Gephardt wouldn’t be a happy thought.
Edwards, on the other hand, brings to the campaign the excitement, charisma, and energy that Kerry so often lacks. Recent test polls suggested that, among the plausible VP choices, only Edwards would boost Kerry’s standing with undecided voters. Edwards has already polled well in the midwestern state of Iowa, where his unexpected 2nd-place showing in the January caucuses first propelled him to national attention. His populist image should help Kerry in key midwestern states where the economy has not recovered as rapidly as it has done elsewhere. Edwards also waged a remarkably civil campaign during the primary season. He seldom criticized Kerry directly, and his views are similar to Kerry’s on most issues.
By choosing Edwards, a southerner, Kerry has signaled that the Democrats don’t intend to write off the South. But can Edwards actually pull any southern states into the Democratic column? Recent polls have suggested that a handful of southern states could be in play, but no poll has actually shown Kerry leading in any of them. VP nominees are seldom relevant to the race anywhere but in their home state, and and it is far from certain that Kerry can win either of the Carolinas, even with Edwards on the ticket. Few men have won the Presidency without winning the VP’s home state (Nixon in 1968 was the last to do it), and few VP nominees have had significant influence on the race elsewhere (Johnson in 1960 may have been the only one who did).
Republicans are sure to point out Edwards’s comparatively shallow resume. After a long and lucrative career as a trial lawyer, Edwards was elected to the Senate and has served a single term. That is the extent of his political career. Lack of experience has never prevented anyone from getting elected Vice President — just ask Spiro Agnew or Dan Quayle — but in an era when war and global terrorism dominate the agenda, Edwards’s lack of international experience looks like a gaping hole in his credentials. He will need to study hard, to avoid getting smoked when he debates Dick Cheney.
The Presidential race has been a statistical tie for months now, with Bush and Kerry polling around 45% apiece. Just 10% of the voters prefer another candidate (typically Nader) or are undecided. This is a lower undecided percentage than is typical for this stage of the race. It suggests what many pundits have recognized — that the race is polarized, with far more Americans than usual having already made up their minds. This month, culminating in the Democratic National Convention in Boston, is Kerry’s last good chance to put some distance between himself and Bush. The President can reasonably be expected to dominate the month of August, leading up to the Republican national Convention around Labor Day. If Kerry hopes to win, he needs to have and hold a lead by then. Historically, the candidate with a Labor Day lead nearly always goes on to win in November.
Although there was no absolutely safe choice, Edwards represented Kerry’s best chance to put some juice into a race that has been stagnant since Kerry wrapped up the nomination in March. As another batch of polls comes out late in the week, we’ll find out if he has succeeded. My bet is that he has.