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The Edwards Endorsement: What It Means

Former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) decision to endorse Sen.Barack Obama's (Ill.) presidential candidacy is sure to draw wall-to-wall media coverage over the next 12 hours or so.

Edwards and Obama
Barack Obama, right, is joined by former Democratic presidential hopeful, John Edwards, at a rally Wednesday in Grand Rapids, Mich. (AP Photo)

But, what impact -- in practical terms -- will it have for Obama's chance at both the Democratic nomination and the presidency?

The short answer is: less than you might think.

As we've seen time and time again throughout the 2008 presidential race, endorsements -- even those as high profile as this one -- have less impact than initially thought.

Sen. Ted Kennedy's (Mass.) endorsement of Obama was covered as though it would effectively end the race, but in the end the Illinois senator wound up losing Massachusetts to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) on Feb. 5. Outgoing Iowa governor Tom Vilsack (D) was a major Clinton backer, but his support didn't keep the New York senator from finishing in third place in the state.

The general rule of thumb on endorsements is that even the most popular politician struggles to transfer his or her base of supporters en masse to another candidate.

That's not to say, however, that Edwards's endorsement is meaningless.

As always, we use The Fix Endorsement Hierarchy to better understand what it means and why.

Edwards's endorsement of Obama fits easily into the top tier of all endorsements -- the symbolic endorsement. As we wrote in our original Endorsement Hierarchy post, the symbolic endorsement is the "most coveted of all because it is not simply the typical pat on the back and photo-op, but rather it signifies something larger about a candidate."

In this case, Edwards's support for Obama symbolizes the former North Carolina senator's belief that his one-time rival is the de facto nominee and is ready for the office to which he aspires.

Edwards, one of the few major party figures to remain on the sidelines for much of the nomination fight since dropping out Jan. 30, is clearly seeking to assert himself as a party poo-bah in signaling his belief that Obama is and should be the nominee.

That decision could theoretically influence other undecided superdelegates looking for cover to announce their support for Obama. The argument goes that if such a major figure as Edwards is comfortable publicly endorsing Obama, the race must for all intents and purposes be over, so now is the time to get behind the nominee.

That said, Obama was the presumptive Democratic nominee before Edwards's endorsement and he will have that same status after it.

The other major implication of Edwards's endorsement of Obama is that it may well help to foster something of a detente between the Illinois senator and working-class voters who
have shown very little inclination to date to support Obama over Clinton.

Throughout the 2008 primary season, Edwards, a wealthy trial lawyer, demonstrated his appeal with that group of voters -- heavily targeting his up-from-the-bootstraps message at that group to prove he was one of them and was best positioned to represent their interests in the White House.

While the strategy ultimately fell short, Edwards' populist message and support among middle and lower-middle class voters pushed him to a second-place finish in Iowa and his current status as a spokesman for that often-overlooked bloc. (Despite having dropped out of the race months ago, Edwards still received seven percent of the vote last night in West Virginia, not a bad showing when considering that Obama took just 26 percent.)

At issue is whether Edwards's endorsement will fundamentally alter the way in which working- class voters view Obama. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) is making a major push for these so-called "Reagan Democrats" and, if Obama's showing last night in West Virginia is any indication, he has a long way to go before he can claim these voters as his own.

Will Edwards' backing help in that cause? Sure. But, remember that Edwards has been out of the race -- and the limelight -- for months now and his endorsement doesn't matter as much as it might have three months ago or even one month ago.

Make no mistake: Both Clinton and Obama worked hard for and wanted Edwards's support. But, his endorsement alone does not -- and will not -- drastically affect the race.

By Chris Cillizza  |  May 14, 2008; 6:35 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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Next: Is Clinton Right That She's the Stronger Candidate?

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