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History is the study of the choices we have made through the years, but it also ought to be the study of the choices we could have made but didn’t.
I wrote some about this recently when I looked at how the Youngkin administration wants to introduce formal instruction in Virginia’s high schools about the Readjuster Party, a short-lived biracial party in the 1880s whose policies briefly set the state on a different, more progressive path, until a voter backlash fueled by white supremacy led to even stricter segregation.
Today I’ll write about another path not taken, this one from the 2000s.
One of the curious things about running an online site is that we get to see the web searches that lead readers to our site (just not who made them). My favorite recently is “opening a weed store in Virginia.” Presumably that led the searcher to some of our coverage about Virginia’s debate over creating a retail market for cannabis. See! We’re promoting entrepreneurship. Unfortunately for that prospective entrepreneur, Virginia has yet to set up those rules.
Another search term that caught my eye recently was “where is John Edwards, one time Democratic candidate, now.” That reader was probably disappointed, too, when they discovered that the only “John Edwards” on our site is a different John Edwards, the state senator from Roanoke. However, I can probably guess what led that internet user to search for John Edwards, just not the one we cover.
Former President Donald Trump has said he expects to be indicted in New York on charges connected with alleged payoffs to porn star Stormy Daniels, who claims she and Trump had a thing going on. Edwards — the former North Carolina U.S. senator, not the current Roanoke state senator — was indicted on similar charges in 2011. In his case, he was accused of using campaign funds to help cover up an affair. The following year, that Edwards was acquitted on one charge, and the jury deadlocked on five others. If you think any charges against Trump might be flimsy, that’s a good case to look at. If you think Republicans are unnaturally supportive of a candidate allegedly having a fling with a porn star, that’s also a good case to look at, because Democrats have basically disowned Edwards and now never speak his name. For a politician who was considered a national player not that long ago, someone who was the party’s vice presidential nominee in 2004, someone who was a legitimate presidential contender in 2008, Edwards is now persona non grata among Democrats.
Republicans might want to muse on why they have not reacted the same way with Trump, while Democrats might want to ponder what might have happened if they had more warmly embraced Edwards’ politics (and what might have happened if Edwards hadn’t carried on his own tawdry affair that later came to light).
For Democrats, Edwards represents a political path not taken, a road that could have led through rural Virginia.
Let’s rewind to the last century: Edwards was a hotshot lawyer from North Carolina who made a national name for himself by suing big companies in personal injury cases. The editor of North Carolina Legal Weekly called Edwards’ closing arguments in one case “the most impressive legal performance I have ever seen.” Soon, Edwards was arguing before another jury — the jury of public opinion. In 1998, Edwards ran for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat — and won over a Republican incumbent. It was a rare Democratic pickup in a South that was otherwise rapidly realigning against the party. Between that and his obvious skill as an orator, Edwards was considered a rising star. Just two years after being elected to the Senate, Edwards was on Al Gore’s short list for vice presidential candidates in 2000. Come 2004, Edwards decided not to seek reelection to the Senate and instead set his sights on running for president. This was a meteoric rise.
What makes Edwards interesting, in a historical sense, is the political profile he cut. Edwards tried to establish himself as a champion of working-class Americans, a demographic that once was the bedrock of the Democratic Party but which by the ’80s was trending Republican, what were then called Reagan Democrats. Phrases such as “working class” or “blue collar” may be widely understood but are also difficult to quantify. Income isn’t a good measure; an electrician journeyman may make more money than, oh, let’s say a journalist. Education has become the more accepted metric.
Historically, those with college degrees were more likely to vote Republican and those without were more likely to vote Democratic. All that’s been in flux, though, as voting groups realign. The presidential election in 2004 was the first in which college graduates were more likely to vote Democratic, according to the Pew Research Center. Politico says that didn’t happen until 2016, because its studies show that in 2012 college graduates favored Mitt Romney over Barack Obama. Whatever the year, that flip has happened, with Trump as an accelerating factor. In both 2016 and 2020, those with a college degree favored the Democratic candidate by a wide margin (61% to 37% in the case of Biden vs. Trump) while those with less than a college degree favored Republicans (53% for Trump, 45% for Biden). This is the political equivalent of the magnetic poles flipping. This is part of the reason why rural areas that once voted Democratic now vote overwhelmingly Republican, with the coal counties of Southwest Virginia being Exhibit A. There may be lots of reasons why — I’m not attempting to write a political treatise on that, just trying to show that it has happened.
Here’s one more measure of how the parties have changed. In 1996, voters with a high school diploma or less constituted 51% of Democratic voters, according to the Pew Research Center. By 2019, that figure was down to 28%. By contrast, the share of Democrats with some college experience swelled from 49% to 72%. Over the past few decades, the makeup of both parties has changed dramatically.
Edwards was significant because he based his 2004 campaign on an appeal to that shrinking part of the Democratic electorate (and that’s probably why he didn’t win). His voters were considered more working-class and more rural. In hindsight, Edwards’ campaign pitch was a liberal version of Trump’s — not in its xenophobia or coarseness but in its critique of the nation’s economy. Where Trump blamed unfair foreign trade for undermining America’s manufacturing base, Edwards blamed major corporations at home for squeezing American workers. His stock phrase was how there are “two Americas,” divided by the economy and lack of opportunity. “The truth is, we still live in a country where there are two different Americas,” Edwards said. “One for all of those people who have lived the American dream and don’t have to worry, and another for most Americans, everybody else who struggles to make ends meet every single day.” He called frontrunner John Kerry a Washington insider and mocked him for saying he’d form a committee to look into trade deals.
Edwards made a surprisingly strong showing in the Iowa caucuses in 2004, finishing second behind Kerry. He couldn’t replicate that in other states, though. He won in South Carolina, the first Southern state to vote, but then kept losing other states. One of those was Virginia, where Kerry took 51.5% and Edwards was a distant second with 26.6%. Kerry won consistently across the state; Edwards won only scattered rural counties, mostly in Southwest — Bland, Carroll, Craig, Grayson, Mecklenburg, Patrick, Pulaski and Wythe counties. After failing to win a single state in the Southern-loaded Super Tuesday primary, Edwards dropped out. Kerry eventually chose Edwards as his running mate, and that was considered a smart choice at the time as the party prepared to take on President George W. Bush, who was seeking a second term. The political theory was that Edwards could be deployed to key Rust Belt states and might connect with voters better than the more aloof, cerebral Kerry. That obviously didn’t work but Edwards wasn’t blamed for that. On the contrary, he was considered well-positioned to make another run in 2008.
The 2008 Democratic nomination race was essentially a three-way contest among Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Obama. Once again Edwards finished second in Iowa, but he was overshadowed by Obama’s surprise win. After he finished third in South Carolina and Florida, two Southern states where he’d hoped to do well, he dropped out. He also chastised his party. “I don’t know when our party began to turn away from the cause of working people,” Edwards said. “In this campaign we … looked them square in the eye and we said: ‘We see you, we hear you and we will never forget you.’”
The Reuters news agency wrote: “Some commentators dismissed the electoral viability of the campaign message as out of step with the educated, middle class voters at the core of the Democratic Party.”
And that’s the question I want to pose today: What if Democrats had been more open to Edwards’ message in 2004 or 2008? Could Edwards have arrested the slippage of working-class voters away from the party or was that inevitable for non-economic cultural reasons? (Let’s set aside the prospect of his affair coming to light during the 2008 presidential campaign or the prospect of a President Edwards facing a criminal investigation in 2011 for allegedly using campaign funds to cover up a mistress; I suspect Republicans would have felt very different about that inquiry from how they feel today about one involving a former president from their own party.) If Edwards had managed to reposition the Democratic Party’s image as more inclusive of blue-collar and/or rural voters, would that have left less political air for Trump to mount his own populist campaign on many of the same issues in 2016?
In the absence of a multiverse a la the Oscar-winning “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” we have no way of knowing how Edwards’ focus on working-class voters would have played out. Instead, all we know is what has happened: Democrats have become a distinctly white-collar party, while Republicans are grappling with the consequences of becoming a more blue-collar party. We also know that the Democratic base in much of rural America has simply evaporated.
Even as late as 2004, the Kerry-Edwards ticket managed to win some places in Southwest Virginia that would be unthinkable for Democrats today. They took 53.7% of the vote in Buchanan County, 51.2% in Covington and 50.8% in Dickenson County. By 2020, Biden could manage just 15.9% in Buchanan County, 37.0% in Covington and 20.6% in Dickenson County. In the 2021 governor’s race, things were even worse for Democrats in much of rural Virginia.
Another instructive example is in Edwards’ North Carolina. In his 1998 Senate race, he won many rural counties that are now simply out of reach of Democrats. In Alleghany County, North Carolina, just across the state line from our Grayson County, Edwards took almost 54% of the vote in 1998. By 2020, the Democratic vote share there had fallen to 24.5%. The same pattern plays out across rural North Carolina. Again, could Edwards have prevented that there and across the country? We don’t know; all we know is that Democrats are basically in free fall in many rural communities, and that’s made it harder for the party to win Senate seats — and the presidency. Or, as we saw in Virginia in 2021, the governorship.
Democrats don’t need to win rural areas again, but they do need to run better than they have. Otherwise, they stake everything on winning by thunderous margins in metro areas that may not always be achievable. (McAuliffe took just 12.1% of the vote in Lee County, a county that Democrat Mark Warner had won two decades before. If he’d run just a little better in rural Virginia, he’d have won.) Some Democrats today seem to understand intellectually the need to do better with rural voters, they just don’t understand in their hearts how to do it. If they called up Edwards, he might have some good advice for them — assuming they’re willing to talk to him again. I don’t know if he regrets his affair, but Democrats should.