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SEIU's Non-Endorsement: How Bad for Edwards?

Moments after the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) announced yesterday that it would not offer a national endorsement of any of the Democratic candidates for president, the political class seemed to arrive at a swift conclusion: this was terrible news for former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.).

Edwards had made no secret that he was pushing hard for an endorsement from the national SEIU; he had spent the better part of 2005 and 2006 courting key components of organized labor -- meeting with both state and national leaders as well as rank and file members.

And so, the fact that SEIU is not endorsing any candidate on one level is a blow. Edwards wanted the endorsement and didn't get it. A national endorsement would have been a major media event for Edwards and would have been perceived as a sign that his decision to accept public financing for the primary season had not been the mistake that many have painted it as. A national endorsement would have also pushed back against the perception that in the end this is a two-person race between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.).

But, a look further inside the process lessens the blow somewhat for Edwards.

From the start, securing a national endorsement was never going to be an easy task. The SEIU chapters in New York and Illinois are both large and powerful, and given that an endorsement would only come if leaders representing 60 percent of the SEIU's total membership were aligned behind a candidate, there was always a high bar for Edwards to secure the nod. (It's worth noting that SEIU has no presence in either North Carolina, which Edwards represented in the Senate from 1998 until 2004, or South Carolina where he was born.)

It was that fact that Edwards spokesman Eric Schultz focused on when reached today for comment. "Despite aggressive efforts by the other campaigns to stop any endorsement by SEIU, we are very pleased by the fact that we will gain endorsement of SEIU locals from across America," he said. "Lacking any home-state advantage, Edwards earned majority support, and now tens of thousands of SEIU members supporting Edwards will have an effective outlet in the early states and through the nomination process."

Judging from our conversations with those familiar with Edwards' support among state and local SEIU's, he is likely to receive support from a number of states -- including even some that will host early contests -- over the next two weeks. That will bolster Edwards' ground game in the short term, and, Edwards advisers argue, provide him with the exact same level of support as a national endorsement would have provided him.

But, as anyone who follows politics regularly knows, perception often trumps pragmatism when it comes to determining how a news event will play out.

The perception is that Edwards needed this endorsement to keep up with the financial and organizational machines already in place for Clinton and Obama. As much as Edwards has tried to fight the idea that he is a single state (Iowa) candidate, he has been unable to do so. The non-national endorsement is almost certain to further that idea.

The reality is more mixed; Edwards is likely to win the lion's share of state endorsements and enjoy the benefits that come -- primarily ground troops for the turnout battle -- with such backing. But, he will no not get the big bang that would have come from a national endorsement.

Of course, students of history need only remember back to November 2003 when the joint endorsement by SEIU and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees of former Gov. Howard Dean (Vt.) were cast as the final piece of the nomination puzzle for the governor. Not so. Dean placed third in Iowa, screamed and his candidacy was -- for all intents and purposes -- over.

By Chris Cillizza  |  October 9, 2007; 11:15 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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