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The Better Bush Beater?

[ Saletan argues (below) on the basis of exit polls from states in which Republicans voted in Democratic primaries that Edwards may be more likely than Kerry to win Republican votes in November. The Republicans featured in the cited polls (i.e., those disposed to crossover) may not be representative of all Republicans; but crossover Republicans (and Independents) are the only ones who matter in the general election anyway, right? This news may be exciting to the progressives disheartened by Kerry's record of supporting Bush on free trade policy. Edwards has been much closer to the most progressive candidate in the race (Dennis Kucinich) on this issue.     Add to the mix Dean's withdrawl from the race, and the uncertainty about which candidates his followers will drift to, and the possibilities for Edwards get much more interesting. Time said this yesterday:

Some Dean aides prefer North Carolina Sen. John Edwards to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, and one senior aide said the former Vermont Gov. felt Edwards was a “more genuine carrier” of Dean's anti-establishment message. But Dean didn't shown any signs of making a formal endorsement …

    On the other hand, many progressives will find it hard to forgive either Edwards or Kerry for a number of blights on their records, including their support for both the Patriot Act and the Iraq War (regardless of how they now spin their “Yea” votes on the October 2002 “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq,” or how Edwards now copes with his co-sponsorship of that Resolution). –doclalor ]

Turning the Tables

Can Kerry stop the bleeding from his Wisconsin wound?

By William Saletan | Posted Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2004, at 9:20 PM PT, Slate

Edwards: most likely to succeed?

The pundits are at it again. They're impressed that John Edwards took John Kerry to the wire in Wisconsin. They're surprised that Edwards defied polls suggesting Kerry would blow him out. They're intrigued that Edwards beat Kerry among independents. But a win is a win, they say, and Kerry has won nearly every contest.

Among self-identified Democrats, that's true. But among independents and Republicans who have chosen to vote in Democratic primaries, the record is very different. In 10 of the states that have voted so far, the media have conducted systematic exit or entrance polls that clarified how independents voted. In seven of those states, exit polls have also measured how self-identified Republicans voted. What percentages of these voters have Kerry and Edwards won, respectively? Let's look at the numbers:

Table 1

Independents

Crossover Republicans

.

Edwards

Kerry

Edwards

Kerry

Iowa

25

34

N/A

N/A

N. Hampshire

13

37

9

29

Arizona

6

33

N/A

N/A

Delaware

12

42

N/A

N/A

Missouri

28

37

37

30

Oklahoma

34

18

30

7

S. Carolina

48

22

54

16

Tennessee

34

32

28

22

Virginia

31

41

45

13

Wisconsin

40

28

44

18

Among independents in the exit-polled states, Kerry has beaten Edwards in six contests; Edwards has beaten Kerry in four. This month, the candidates are tied with four wins apiece. Since Feb. 10, Edwards has won two primaries to Kerry's one.

The pattern among crossover Republicans is more lopsided. Kerry has won one contest; Edwards has won six. This month, Edwards has beaten Kerry among Republicans in all six states in which Republican votes were measured.

Remember, Democrats are as likely to vote for Edwards against President Bush as they are to vote for Kerry against Bush. It's far more likely that independents and crossover Republicans will determine the outcome. In states where the choices of these groups have been measured, Edwards is matching Kerry among independents and beating him among crossover Republicans.

Fine, you say. But independents and crossover Republicans don't control Democratic primaries. Democrats do, and they're voting for Kerry.

That's true. But the exit polls show that, by and large, Democrats aren't voting for Kerry because they prefer him on the issues. They're voting for him because they think he's the Democrat most likely to beat Bush. What happens if they find out he isn't? What happens if they realize that Edwards is doing as well as Kerry among independents and is doing better than Kerry among crossover Republicans?

Again, the numbers tell the story. In nine states, voters were asked in exit polls to clarify whether they chose their candidate primarily because he “agrees with you” on the issues or because he “can defeat Bush.” Here's how Edwards and Kerry performed, respectively, among the “can defeat Bush” voters and the “agrees with you” voters.

Table 2

“Can defeat Bush” voters

“Agrees with you” voters

.

Edwards

Kerry

Edwards

Kerry

N. Hampshire

11

56

14

29

Arizona

6

59

7

32

Delaware

10

71

12

35

Missouri

21

68

29

39

Oklahoma

24

43

32

19

S. Carolina

42

42

48

22

Tennessee

24

58

34

31

Virginia

18

69

28

42

Wisconsin

28

59

39

29

Among “agrees with you” voters, Kerry has beaten Edwards in five contests; Edwards has beaten Kerry in four. This month, they're even at four apiece. Since Feb. 10, Edwards is ahead, two contests to one. Consequently, if “agrees with you” voters continue their February pattern, and if “can defeat Bush” voters begin to split evenly between Kerry and Edwards, Edwards will beat Kerry in half the remaining states. But if “can defeat Bush” voters discover that Edwards is more electable and begin to vote for him instead of Kerry, Edwards will beat Kerry in most states, and the delegate count will turn.

From a horse-race standpoint, I'd rather be Kerry than Edwards tonight. But if I were, I'd be praying that the folks in Table 2 don't find out about the folks in Table 1.

William Saletan is Slate's chief political correspondent.

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