On January 3, 2008, roughly 240,000 Iowans attended Democratic precinct caucuses, and at least 90,000 of them ended up in Barack Obama's corner.
However we felt about Obama during the primaries or the general election campaign, whatever we think about his substantive and symbolic actions since the election, we can all agree that he would not be taking the oath of office tomorrow if Iowa caucus-goers had put him in third place, or even a distant second.
I started writing this diary several times last year. I kept abandoning it because emotions were so raw on Democratic blogs that I felt the piece would only ignite a flamewar. Since more than a year has passed, I decided to try one more time.
After the jump I will try to figure out whether Hillary Clinton or John Edwards could have beaten Obama in Iowa.
There are three ground rules for this thread.
1. This diary accepts that Obama legitimately won the Iowa caucuses.
I know some people out there still think the "Chicago machine" stole the caucuses by busing thousands of people into Iowa to caucus for Obama. I don't like the caucus system any more than you do, but given the rules of the game, I am absolutely convinced that the Obama campaign won it fair and square.
In preparing this piece, I talked (off the record) to many former staffers and volunteers for Clinton and Edwards, as well as Iowa political insiders who were not directly involved in any of the presidential campaigns. None of them suggested that Obama won because of cheating. My many friends who volunteered for Clinton or Edwards in Iowa also agree that the Obama campaign simply out-organized its competitors.
No doubt some out-of-state residents sneaked in to caucus for Obama. However, the Des Moines Register reviewed voter records and concluded that very few ineligible voters participated in the Iowa caucuses. I do not believe the Obama campaign could have orchestrated dozens of fraudulent caucus-goers in each of a hundred or more precincts without being found out. Keep in mind that many precinct chairs (the people who run the proceedings) were backing either Clinton or Edwards.
I have heard that in certain precincts, Obama organizers were overly aggressive in bringing supporters of non-viable candidates to the Obama corner during realignment. But even this Edwards supporter, who complained after seeing it happen, accepted that Obama won the caucuses because of a superior message and "monumental" organization to turn out first-time caucus-goers.
I also heard some grumbling about Obama groups dragging out the counting process in the hope that less-committed supporters of other candidates would get fed up and go home before the final count. But the counting took a long time almost everywhere because of the high turnout and how difficult it was in some packed rooms to keep the preference groups separate. Add this annoyance to the list of problems with the caucus system, but don't blame it on Obama.
The bottom line is that these unfortunate incidents are unlikely to have changed the outcome of the caucuses. The Iowa Democratic Party does not release raw numbers indicating the level of support for each candidate, but Obama had approximately 20,000 more voters stand up for him than either Clinton or Edwards (this includes people who initially backed non-viable candidates but went to Obama, Edwards or Clinton as a second choice).
As for busing college students from other states back to their Iowa campuses on January 3, that was fair, because students enrolled at Iowa colleges are allowed to caucus in Iowa. Qualitatively, there is no difference between the Obama campaign helping students get back to Iowa City from Chicago and my giving an elderly neighbor a ride to our precinct caucus. The caucuses never should have been scheduled so soon after New Year's anyway.
What about all those students who grew up in Iowa but were enrolled at out-of-state colleges? Many were home visiting parents and consequently were able to caucus for Obama. Again, this is permitted by the Iowa Democratic Party. My brother and I attended an out-of-state university in 1988 but came home to caucus for Senator Paul Simon.
What about the independents and Republicans who changed their party registration on caucus night to support Obama? We can debate whether primaries and caucuses should be "open" or "closed," but the Iowa Democratic Party's rules clearly allow party-switchers to participate in precinct caucuses. If Obama's campaign did a better job of turning out non-Democrats, so be it.
What about all those people no one seemed to know at their precinct caucuses? The turnout was astonishing, but it would be wrong to assume that all those first-timers were for Obama, or that they didn't really live in the neighborhoods where they caucused. The number of people who ended up in the Clinton and Edwards corners exceeded 140,000, which would have set a record for Iowa Democratic caucus turnout even if everyone else had stayed home.
The Clinton campaign mobilized huge numbers of people who had never attended a caucus before (more on that below). Even without any new voter strategy to speak of, Edwards ended up with a lot of supporters his campaign had never directly contacted. I had been working my precinct for months and still had people in our Edwards group whom I'd never met before January 3. The blogger fladem volunteered in a West Des Moines precinct on caucus night. He told me later that the Edwards campaign gave him a list of 34 supporters it had identified in the precinct (only 15 of whom showed up), but even before realignment 77 people joined the Edwards group.
My point is that a lot of Iowans came out of the woodwork to participate in the caucuses. Evidence indicates that the overwhelming majority of them were eligible voters. Political activists didn't recognize a lot of people in the caucus rooms, but that does not mean cheating was widespread.
If you happen to believe that Obama didn't really win Iowa, I probably haven't changed your mind, but I ask you not to hijack this thread with your conspiracy theories.
On to my next ground rule:
2. This diary is about what Clinton or Edwards could have done (if anything) to achieve a better outcome last January 3, assuming the Obama campaign executed its strategy as well as it did.
Obviously, Obama could have lost Iowa in any number of ways we could spend all day imagining. What if he hadn't raised enough money to open all those Iowa field offices? What if he'd flubbed his speeches at the Harkin Steak Fry and Jefferson-Jackson dinner? What if he'd been caught with a hooker at the Hotel Fort Des Moines? This kind of speculation doesn't interest me.
For the purposes of this diary, I assume that Obama would have run an equally effective campaign, raising a ton of money, hiring highly capable staff, adopting the same strategy of targeting Iowans who had never attended a caucus, giving the same well-received speeches, not making any huge gaffes in the debates. Under those conditions, I am exploring what the Clinton and Edwards campaigns could have done to win Iowa.
3. This diary is about things Clinton or Edwards could have done differently in 2007, not about factors that affected the outcome but were beyond their control by the time the campaign heated up in Iowa.
For example, Hillary's vote authorizing the use of force in Iraq created the opening for a candidate like Obama, but by 2007 there was no way for her to change that vote. I'm less interested in speculation like, "Hillary would have won if she'd voted against the war in 2002" and more interested in speculation like, "Hillary would have gained more credibility with anti-war Iowa Democrats if she had apologized for her war vote and lobbied for a timeline for withdrawing troops from Iraq."
Elizabeth Edwards' cancer recurrence unquestionably created problems for Edwards in Iowa, which is why his first major television ad emphasized his commitment to the campaign despite her illness. But there was nothing Edwards could do about that.
With those parameters in mind, I'll discuss the key mistakes and miscalculations made by the Clinton and Edwards campaigns and then consider some specific counterfactual questions.
WHERE DID CLINTON AND EDWARDS GO WRONG IN IOWA?
When I asked former staffers and volunteers an open-ended question about what might have changed the outcome in Iowa, nine times out of ten the first thing people brought up was the failure to anticipate how large the voter universe would be. Howard Dean's new-voter strategy had flopped, and most experienced hands assumed that Obama's would fail too.
Throughout 2007, the Edwards campaign assumed that about 135,000 people would caucus in Iowa. That would have been about 10 percent higher than the previous record turnout. Many former Edwards supporters believe that this strategic error doomed the campaign. Precinct captains and field organizers called through and canvassed the same voter lists again and again. In the final weeks, we were irritating people by contacting the same group who had heard from us many times and had mostly made up their minds.
Field organizers who expressed concern about apparently growing support for Obama were told not to worry, because most of those people would never come out on a cold night in January. The Edwards' campaign's internal numbers showed he was winning. He probably did win among Iowans who had caucused before, and in many areas he exceeded his campaign's "vote goals," but it wasn't enough. In my precinct, the campaign estimated Edwards would need 110 supporters to win four out of the six delegates. We ended up with more than that, but it was only enough for two delegates.
Several former Edwards staffers I spoke with were surprised that he did as well as he did (ending up with more than 70,000 supporters after realignment), given how little his campaign did to reach out to new voters. I heard many comments along the lines of, "Finishing second was a major victory." I also thought Edwards would be blown out of the water in the unlikely event of turnout over 200,000.
Clinton's problem was different. Her top supporters and staff realized early on that she was behind in Iowa and needed to change the equation. Consequently, her strategy did not rely so heavily on experienced caucus-goers. On the contrary, the Clinton campaign implemented some ingenious strategies for mobilizing first-timers, which worked fairly well.
A common refrain from shell-shocked Clinton volunteers I spoke to in the weeks after the caucuses was, "We thought we had enough." If you had told me in advance that Hillary would end up with more than 70,000 people in her corner, I would also have expected her to win. The achievement is even more impressive given that Clinton did far worse than Obama and Edwards in terms of second choices. If the Iowa Democratic Party did not have a 15 percent threshold rule, forcing supporters of minor candidates to realign, Hillary probably would have finished ahead of Edwards and not very far behind Obama.
Why did Clinton's new-voter strategy fall short? A few volunteers I spoke with felt the campaign had focused too much on the demographic groups that strongly supported Hillary: voters over 50, especially women. One person from a different part of the state told me she had suggested some outreach ideas for young professionals, only to be told by staff that "Our people are older."
The failure to appreciate Obama's potential to expand the electorate led to another major error: both the Clinton and Edwards campaigns were too quick to write off Obama's chances in Iowa.
In June and July 2007, all three campaigns conducted statewide canvassing. The door-knockers for Clinton and Edwards were mostly working from a list of previous caucus-goers, perhaps including some primary voters too. If I heard it once, I heard it twenty times, from Clinton volunteers as well as fellow Edwards supporters: Obama was way behind, especially once you got outside major cities. My field organizer told me in July that Clinton was Edwards' only competition in Iowa: "We know it, they know it, and the Obama people know it."
Staff from other campaigns knew that Obama field organizers and volunteers were canvassing lots of people who had never attended a caucus, as well as people who had never been registered Democrats. But again, experienced hands assumed that relying on new voters was never going to be a winning strategy for the Iowa caucuses.
Some Clinton volunteers were frustrated that Hillary did not spend much time in Iowa during the summer of 2007, aside from a swing through the state with her husband in early July. Later, some interpreted this to mean that Hillary was never serious about winning Iowa. I was not privy to high-level discussions within the Clinton campaign, but my hunch is that they simply weren't worried about Obama and figured losing to Edwards wouldn't be a big problem, if it came to that. In any event, Clinton moved into the lead in some Iowa polls during the summer.
The Clinton and Edwards campaigns also had poor outreach to key Democratic-leaning interest groups, with the exception of organized labor. I am involved with many environmental non-profits and am acquainted with lots of people from other progressive advocacy organizations. Time and again, Obama's field organizers would be the only campaign staff represented at events hosted by these groups.
A friend and fellow Edwards precinct captain continually complained that Obama had much better outreach to the peace community. Staffers reassured her, "We have Ed Fallon." Fallon has great connections among Iowa peaceniks going back to the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s, but his endorsement of Edwards wasn't going to single-handedly bring all those people along.
Representatives of progressive advocacy groups found it easy to meet with Obama's senior staff in Iowa. The campaign seemed receptive to their input about policy. When the same people tried to meet with the Clinton campaign, they sometimes had their scheduled meetings postponed at the last minute, or they would show up and end up meeting with junior staffers because the senior staff had more important business at hand. Some of the Clinton staff who had not worked in Iowa before came across as condescending. One sustainable farming activist told me that the Clinton staff from the east coast "would look at you like you had sh*t on your shoes."
Because the Clinton and Edwards campaigns were slow to realize Obama was a threat in Iowa, they gave their volunteers virtually no talking points to use with voters considering Obama. So, the week after the caucuses I talked with a politically active member of the LGBT community in Des Moines who had never heard of the Donnie McClurkin fiasco. Some board members of an environmental non-profit caucused for Obama, not knowing that he was open to expanding nuclear power and had voted for George Bush's energy bill in 2005. Some people in the peace community were unaware that Obama had voted for Iraq War supplemental funding bills with no strings attached.
Whatever your pet issue was, the Obama campaign probably had a staffer working to show you he would do something you liked. The Clinton and Edwards campaigns had less personal contact with activists and gave their staff and volunteers little specific guidance on how to persuade voters that Clinton or Edwards was better than Obama on this or that issue.
Obama's large paid campaign staff presumably made it easier to reach out to interest groups. I know I wasn't the only volunteer who encouraged the Edwards campaign to send staff to certain events being hosted by non-profit groups. Unfortunately, the field organizers had so many other required tasks that taking a few hours to attend one of these events was usually not feasible.
I learned months later that the Edwards field organizers spent untold hours searching for supporters who fit into certain categories: doctors for Edwards, veterans for Edwards, rural firefighters for Edwards, hog farmers for Edwards. Unfortunately, those lists seem to have been compiled solely for the purpose of sending out a press release and generating some favorable media coverage and material for the campaign website.
Outreach on college campuses was not very strong either. Granted, Clinton or Edwards were never going to win among college students, because Obama's branding as the young voters' choice was phenomenally successful. Still, the other candidates could have done more to keep Obama's margins down with this demographic. One Edwards field organizer in a different part of the state told me his office mostly ignored the local community college campus, on the assumption that Edwards wasn't the youth candidate and none of those kids would show up on caucus night anyway.
The Clinton campaign disastrously suggested that Obama was trying to "manipulate" the process by encouraging out-of-state students to come back to campus on January 3. Clinton ended up not even reaching the 15 percent viability threshold in a number of college-town precincts.
The Clinton and Edwards campaigns also were out-hustled when it came to recruiting opinion leaders.
Nothing illustrates the Obama campaign's determined pursuit of prominent Iowa Democrats better than this passage in a New Yorker article by Ryan Lizza:
Obama, who had sometimes seemed to eschew the details of campaigning which Clinton appears to revel in, has become more enmeshed in the state's idiosyncratic politics. Consider the conquest of Gordon Fischer, a former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. Every campaign wanted Fischer's endorsement, but the Obama campaign pursued him relentlessly. At a recent lunch at the Des Moines Embassy Club, a restaurant on the forty-first floor of the tallest building in the state, Fischer explained how Obama's Iowa operatives used his closest friends to persuade him to back Obama. One, Lola Velázquez-Aguilú, managed to decorate part of Fischer's house with photographs of Obama that featured thought bubbles asking for Fischer's endorsement. ("Has anyone told you how great you look today?" an image of Obama taped to a mirror said. "So, are you ready to sign a supporter card?") When Obama staffers learned that the late Illinois senator Paul Simon was a hero of Fischer's, they asked Simon's son-in-law, Perry Knop, to call Fischer and make the case for Obama. At one point, Obama himself invited Fischer onto his campaign bus and told him that he had to stay aboard until he agreed to an endorsement. When Fischer insisted that he had to make the decision with his wife, Monica, Obama demanded Monica's cell-phone number, and he called her at once. "Monica, this is Barack Obama," he said when her voice mail came on. "I'm with your husband here, and I'm trying to go ahead and close the deal for him to support my candidacy. . . . Discuss it over with your man. Hopefully we can have you on board." The Fischers were sufficiently impressed to endorse him, two weeks later. "I think the Iowa campaign has been run better than the national campaign," Fischer said.
When I showed that paragraph to my husband a year ago, his first reaction was that Fischer had inadvertently made a really strong argument for scrapping the Iowa caucuses. No doubt many of you are nodding your heads.
The Obama campaign just worked harder to win over those who could influence others, and not only well-known people like Fischer, state legislators, city and county officials. Iowa blogger John Deeth posted this remarkable anecdote the day before the caucuses:
After the Clinton rally last night in Iowa City, a Clinton precinct captain sighed in frustration and, insisting on anonymity, shared this story. The precinct captain's friend, a school principal, had said he was trying to choose between Clinton and Barack Obama. He was on his way into the rally when his cell phone rang. It was Obama.
Not a campaign staffer, a volunteer, or a robo-call. It was Barack Obama himself.
The personal request proved to be sufficient, as the principal pledged his support directly to the candidate, turned on his heels, and walked out of the Clinton event.
Now, we all know Iowans are spoiled, and I've heard some stories of Clinton calling individual Iowans, albeit Iowans of the elected official rank. But the Clinton precinct captain told this tale as an example of frustration with the top-down organization of the Clinton campaign. An Obama precinct captain was able to get the word up through the county and state structure that this principal, not a party activist but certainly a neighborhood leader who'd look really persuasive standing in the Obama corner at his precinct, could be persuaded by a few words from the candidate.
The Obama campaign also kept after some opinion leaders who had endorsed other candidates. A well-known surrogate for another candidate told me that people representing the Obama campaign were still calling as late as two weeks before caucus night, trying to get this person to switch sides. I assume similar lobbying was going on all over the state. Late conversions created good publicity, such as when a Lee County supervisor who had been a county chairman for Edwards endorsed Obama in November.
While the Clinton and Edwards campaigns had some common problems, each campaign also made some unique mistakes. Here are some complaints I heard from Hillary's former volunteers, precinct captains or low-level staff.
As I've mentioned above, Clinton was perceived not to be spending enough time in Iowa during the summer and early fall. She didn't hold many rallies outside the cities and opened most of her small-town field offices two months after Obama had offices up and running in the same communities. (Edwards also opened many of his field offices late in the game, but that was due to scarce resources, not strategy.)
Clinton's campaign was less of a grassroots operation than Obama's. Several people independently used the word "top-down" to describe it to me. Staff at smaller field offices had little flexibility when it came to outreach or publicity and often felt out of the loop. One person told me about the day when staff found out at 8 am that Bill Clinton was doing a rally in the town at 1 pm that day. They sent volunteers to hand out fliers at grocery store parking lots in the freezing cold, in a desperate attempt to build a crowd on such short notice.
The setup of the typical Clinton rally put a lot of distance between her and the voters. I assume the Secret Service had a lot to do with this practice, so I wouldn't blame the Clinton staff. Nevertheless, it made Hillary seem remote to caucus-goers who were used to seeing the various candidates in person.
Compounding this problem, Clinton rarely took questions from the audience at her Iowa events. The cautious strategy made sense on one level; why risk making a gaffe when Clinton was so far ahead in so many other states? On the other hand, not answering questions from the public goes against Iowa's "political culture." When Clinton started to draw some negative attention for this habit, her staff planted questions at a Grinnell College event, leading to a devastating national media cycle or two.
Adding to the sense of remoteness at Clinton events, the candidate was almost always introduced by either former Governor Tom Vilsack or former First Lady Christie Vilsack. Some volunteers felt it would have helped to give a more prominent role to local officials or hometown state legislators at these venues, since they were personally acquainted with more of the audience members.
As for the Edwards campaign, I mentioned the most important problems above, but a couple of other glitches repeatedly frustrated volunteers.
The field organizers did an excellent job for the most part, but there was a disconnect between people who signed up online to volunteer and the field offices that could have used their help. This Edwards supporter from tiny Strawberry Point articulated the problem well:
I know just from other comments on DKos that I'm not the only one that experienced frustration due to inept organization and/or coordination between the national and local effort in the Edwards camp. After filling out a ton of forms on the website I wasn't contacted once over the phone and only had one email to show for my efforts about a week later. I never got any details about canvassing nor did I even get directions to the phone banking site. Contrast this to the Obama campaign touching base every few days through a LOCAL organizer inviting me to meetings, asking if I would caucus, etc. Then on caucus night the Edwards campaign was the only one without a clear organization while Obama had a group of at least 4 20-somethings that were obviously well-trained by the campaign and had made the 1+ hour trek to a town of 1200 people in northeast Iowa from Illinois.
Nothing irritated me more than the way Edwards ran excessively late to almost all of his campaign events. Even committed supporters didn't appreciate it when the first introductory speaker wasn't on stage nearly an hour after an event's scheduled start time. A lot of undecided voters got fed up and left before hearing the candidate speak.
I remember other precinct captains bringing this up during conference calls with senior Edwards staff in Iowa. They were hearing complaints from friends and neighbors.
Why was Edwards so late all the time? If you compared the candidates' public schedules, Edwards almost always had more events packed into each day. It was great for communicating with voters, but if a media availability in the morning ran late, he was behind all day. Edwards also fielded lots of questions from the audience, which generally made a good impression, but it made it hard to catch up once he fell behind.
Someone high up on the chain of command should have put a stop to the overscheduling. The Edwards campaign placed a lot of importance on holding events in all 99 Iowa counties. Retail politics in small towns is great, but as we saw, Obama was able to win Iowa without visiting all 99 counties. (I'm not even sure he hit 70 counties.)
Now, on to the fun part--the questions no one can answer. I look forward to reading your take on these in the comments, no matter which presidential candidate was your first choice.
What if Clinton or Edwards had done more to target first-time caucus-goers?
Many former Edwards supporters believe underestimating the potential turnout by 100,000 people fatally flawed his campaign. What if he'd realized early on that the voter universe would be much larger than in 2004? I suspect he would have done better on caucus night, but lack of money would have been a problem. Obama and Clinton in effect had unlimited funds to spend in Iowa, and Edwards would have had trouble matching their outreach to people who had never caucused before. That's an enormous pool of voters.
Also, the Edwards core message (the system is rigged because corporations have too much power in Washington, and we need to fight to take that power away from them) was in my opinion much more appealing to the Democratic party faithful than to no-party voters or Democrats who hadn't previously gotten involved in the caucuses.
As I wrote earlier, the Clinton campaign did a lot to identify and mobilize supporters who had never attended a caucus. Perhaps her staff could have reached out to voters under 50 a little better, but I think they were working this angle as hard as they could.
What if Clinton or Edwards had done more to target independents and Republicans?
All the candidates had some supporters who were registered Republicans and independents, but Obama unquestionably did the best among those groups.
I think Clinton's potential to expand her support among Republicans and independents was limited. Lots of Republicans have practically an allergic reaction to the Clintons. Multiple polls indicated that Iowa's independents didn't like Hillary as much as they liked Obama. I can't imagine that it would have been a wise use of her campaign's resources to focus more on non-Democrats.
Edwards probably could have improved his showing with independents if his campaign had reached out to them more, but again, lack of resources was a problem. Going after Democrats who hadn't caucused before would have spread his organization very thin, to say nothing of independents. Also, the Edwards rhetoric about fighting corporate power and supporting organized labor was tailored to the Democratic base. It was never likely to appeal much to independents or Republicans. Obama's appeals to post-partisanship and empowering rhetoric ("we are the change we've been waiting for") was much better suited to voters who were not partisan Democrats.
What if someone had gone negative on Obama before Iowa?
As Obama picked up momentum in the fall of 2007, no one was making any kind of case against him with Iowans. Conventional wisdom says you don't go negative in a multiple-candidate environment, because the support candidate A drives away from candidate B is likely to flow toward candidate C. On the other hand, if you're Hillary, losing Iowa to Edwards would not do nearly as much damage as losing to Obama. Should her campaign have done more to get negative information on Obama out there?
Interestingly, only one political insider told me Clinton's biggest mistake was not going hard negative on Obama before the caucuses. This person didn't work on any of the 2008 presidential campaigns but has extensive experience working on other campaigns. Most people I spoke with said going negative on Obama would only have backfired.
Howard Dean hit his high-water mark in Iowa about six weeks before the 2004 caucuses, but in that case the national media amplified and lent credibility to rival candidates' attacks. In all likelihood the national media would have responded very differently to attacks on Obama. Clinton would have been called "desperate" and hypocritical.
Since Edwards had no path forward but to win Iowa, I can't see how it would have helped him to go after Obama before the caucuses. The national media already disliked Edwards and would have ripped him to shreds. I remember people accusing the Edwards campaign of racism just for saying that Edwards would be the Democrats' strongest general-election candidate.
As I wrote earlier, I do think both campaigns needed to get their volunteers more "talking points" about why Clinton or Edwards would be better than Obama on this or that issue. Those would have been useful during direct voter contacts like canvassing and house parties, not as part of either campaign's message through the media.
What if Reverend Jeremiah Wright's comments had been widely publicized before the Iowa caucuses?
When "God damn America" was all over television last March, I talked with a lot of Iowans about how that level of publicity for Wright might have affected the caucuses. I didn't find any consensus. I believe that if the national media had wanted to bring down Obama the way they wanted to bring down Dean, they could have hurt him badly by making Reverend Wright a big story in November and December 2007. It wouldn't have put off the Iowans who strongly supported Obama, but there were plenty of people who drifted toward Obama because they thought he was more electable than Clinton or Edwards. The Wright clips would have made those people think twice. Few Democrats actually care what Obama's pastor said, but lots of Democrats worried about other voters being offended by these comments.
Many of my politically active acquaintances think Iowans wouldn't have cared much about Reverend Wright, and Obama could have brushed it off as a personal attack or an attempt to distract from the important issues.
What if Clinton had apologized for her Iraq War vote?
I thought it was a mistake for Hillary not to follow Edwards' example and apologize for voting to authorize the use of military force in Iraq. However, opposition to Clinton among Iowa Democrats was rooted in a lot more than her stand on Iraq. I don't think she would have changed the equation by apologizing. Remember, John Kerry and John Edwards beat Howard Dean in the 2004 caucuses without expressing regret for their AUMF votes.
What if Clinton had skipped Iowa?
In May 2007, when early polling showed Hillary behind in Iowa and with high negatives, Clinton's deputy campaign manager Mike Henry wrote a memo recommending that the campaign
pull completely out of Iowa and spend the money and Senator Clinton's time on other states [...] If she walks away from Iowa she will devalue Iowa - our consistently weakest state.
John McCain in effect pulled out of Iowa and was able to win the Republican nomination. What about Hillary?
I find this question particularly difficult to answer. If Hillary admitted that she could not win among Democrats in a swing state, how could she make the case that she could win across the country? During the summer of 2007, Clinton's aura of inevitability was an asset to her, and admitting weakness in Iowa would have undercut that.
Some former Edwards staffers believe he might have beaten Obama if Hillary had not seriously contested Iowa. Both Clinton and Edwards did much better among voters over 60 than Obama. However, thousands of the people who caucused for Hillary would never have shown up on January 3 if her campaign had not been active in Iowa.
Among the Clinton supporters who would have caucused anyway, some would have preferred Edwards, but I don't think he would have dominated this group--not enough to overtake Obama. A lot of older voters were attracted to Clinton's experience and would have gone to Bill Richardson or Joe Biden as a second choice. Maybe those candidates would have been viable in a lot more precincts without a strong effort from Clinton.
If Edwards had realized early on that Obama, not Clinton, was his main competition in Iowa, his strategy might have changed significantly in unpredictable ways. But I still think his campaign would have underestimated Obama's ability to turn out new voters.
What if Bill Clinton had campaigned more in Iowa?
Clinton surged in Iowa polls after her first major tour around the state with her husband in July. Should she have traveled with the former president more in Iowa, or should she have had him do more events in Iowa during the weeks that she was tied up in Washington on Senate business?
For what it's worth, very few Clinton supporters I know believe her campaign should have used Bill Clinton more. A lot of people did support Hillary because they liked the idea of "two presidents for the price of one," but she needed to demonstrate her own leadership potential. She couldn't afford to be seen as running for her husband's third term. Also, her campaign benefited from the strong desire of many to see a woman elected president, and giving Bill Clinton too prominent a role in the campaign would have undercut that message.
What if we'd never heard about Edwards' $400 haircut?
Ask any former Edwards volunteer or staffer how many voters immediately brought up the $400 haircut the second you mentioned the candidate's name. It was a nightmare that no amount of self-deprecating humor or clever YouTubes could end.
In November 2007 I attended a big rally in Des Moines. Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne played a few songs to get the crowd going, then Edwards gave a great stump speech. When he opened it up to Q and A, the second question from the audience was basically, "Why should I believe you're authentic when I hear about things like the $400 haircut?"
What if Edwards had never gotten that haircut, or at least had not listed it on his FEC disclosure form?
I take a contrarian view on this question. Marc Ambinder famously admitted that when the haircut story broke at the end of the first quarter of 2007, it took off because "the press was trying to bury Edwards." In the same piece, Ambinder observed, "fairly or unfairly, a healthy chunk of the national political press corps doesn't like John Edwards."
If not the haircut, some other conspicuous consumption by Edwards would have been flogged to death by journalists seeking to "bury" the candidate. In fact, they already had all the ammunition they needed in Edwards' huge North Carolina home.
I don't know when the Edwards home was completed, but it first started making national news about two months before anyone heard of the haircut. A lot of politically-active Iowans were turned off. This is an excerpt from an e-mail I received in February 2007 from an acquaintance who has volunteered for various political and environmental causes in Iowa:
It would be very hard, if not impossible, for me to vote for him now. I was hedging before (the alternative of Hillary was helping him more than anything), but that house is exactly the over-consumptive lifestyle that constitutes my #1 pet peeve. He could have built a 5000 sf home that was 100% energy and carbon neutral with that money and set a desperately needed example 🙁
Energy efficient or not, 6,000 sf per current resident is ridiculous. It's just plain symbolic of the worst habits of American wealth 🙁 For me, it's not necessarily the fact that he built it now, but that he would consider building it EVER that I find most disappointing.
If you never liked Edwards, the big house confirmed your belief that he was just a rich phony talking a good game about helping the poor. But from my perspective, the house did more harm with the Iowans who liked Edwards. I have no data to back this up, but my impression was that early in 2007, the people who had caucused for Edwards in 2004 tended to lean toward supporting him again, while being open to hear what other candidates had to say. After the house story broke, and was reinforced by the $400 haircut, a significant number of those people started leaning toward finding a different candidate.
What if Edwards had raised more money?
Edwards raised a respectable amount of money in the first quarter of 2007, but he was well behind Obama and Clinton. The haircut story severely damaged his second-quarter fundraising, which compounded his problem getting journalists to take him seriously as a contender. Redeploying some staff from Nevada to Iowa was not enough to solve the campaign's money problem. In September, Edwards reversed course and opted into the public financing system. Taking public financing was not a salient issue with many Iowa voters, as far as I could tell, but it was a huge deal to the journalists and bloggers who followed the campaign closely. I know that Obama volunteers were telling undecided voters that Edwards would never have enough money to beat Hillary or a Republican because of the spending limits that came with public financing.
What if Edwards had raised enough money to compete with the others without taking public matching funds? I asked quite a few former Edwards staffers whether they though lack of resources was a major problem. Of course everyone would have liked to have as many field offices as Obama, and there was enough work to keep a much larger paid campaign staff busy. However, the consensus seems to be that even if the Edwards campaign had had significantly more money to spend, the money would have gone toward targeting the same narrow voter universe, or running more advertising on airwaves that were already oversaturated. I tend to agree.
What if Edwards' extramarital affair had been exposed during 2007?
Clinton's former communications director, Howard Wolfson, made a big splash in August by suggesting that Edwards' cover-up of his affair with Rielle Hunter cost Hillary the Iowa caucuses and therefore the Democratic nomination. I don't think so.
If the affair had become public knowledge, the Edwards campaign would certainly have imploded. But having talked to hundreds of people who caucused for Edwards, I am convinced that more of them would have switched to Obama than Clinton. Probably Obama would have won Iowa by a larger margin.
A significant number of Edwards supporters didn't like either of the front-runners, so maybe Biden, Richardson or Dodd would have been able to reach the 15 percent threshold in a lot more precincts. Clinton would still have been in second place.
(Note: for those who are wondering, yes, I was angry and disappointed upon learning about this affair.)
Thanks to everyone who made it to the end of this very long diary. I hope we can keep it civil in the comments.