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How John Edwards Made It Close

CBS News Political Consultant Monika L. McDermott explains Sen. John Edwards' strong performance in the Wisconsin primary.


The surprisingly close finish in the Wisconsin Democratic primary was driven by a divide within the party between voters who are doing poorly in George W. Bush's America, and those who are doing relatively well.

Despite his central message of economic hardship, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards drew support from voters who reported relative satisfaction with the way things are going. He also benefited from a late surge in support over the course of the past week, during which time he campaigned heavily in Wisconsin, and even more so in the final three days, after receiving an endorsement from the state's largest newspaper.

In contrast, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's support came from voters who painted a bleak picture of both the state of the country, and their own finances. These voters expressed anger with the Bush administration, and cited Kerry's perceived ability to beat Bush as the top reason they were supporting him.

Edwards' Strong Second-Place Showing

Edwards appears to have emerged as the more moderate alternative to Kerry. While a large segment of the primary electorate in each state has been strongly anti-Bush – and has largely thrown its support to Kerry – another, but smaller portion has been expressing more moderate views, and these voters have been supporting Edwards. This moderate appeal may have been especially helpful in Wisconsin's open primary, in which nearly four of every ten voters casting a ballot in the race called themselves independent or Republican. Edwards won these groups handily.

In each primary Edwards has appealed to the party's ideological conservatives, and Wisconsin proved to be no different. Thirty-seven percent of conservatives voted for Edwards, while only 30 percent supported Kerry. In addition, while only 12 percent of voters said they are satisfied with the Bush administration, Edwards carried 50 percent of those voters, compared to 23 percent for Kerry.

Edwards also benefited from more upbeat views of the country on specific issues. Among the 17 percent of voters who described the national economic condition as good or excellent, Edwards received 39 percent of the vote to Kerry's 27 percent. And among those who approve of the U.S. decision to go to war with Iraq (30 percent of the primary electorate), Edwards beat Kerry by 9 points.

Voters whose own personal financial situations are positive also broke for Edwards. Edwards drew strong support from the highest income voters, as well as voters who said their financial situations have improved over the past four years. Among this 21 percent of the electorate, Edwards beat Kerry by seven points.

Despite his success with those voters experiencing good economic times themselves, Edwards' message of bad economic times in general is demonstrating some resonance.

Fifty-four percent of Edwards' voters cited the economy and jobs as the top issue in deciding their vote, and it was the top issue overall – 41 percent of all voters cited it as the most important issue in their choice. In addition, his stand on international trade may have helped him marginally in Wisconsin. Nearly three-quarters of primary voters said they believe international trade costs more jobs in Wisconsin than it creates, and among these voters, Edwards polled close to Kerry.

Much of Edwards' support also came from voters deciding whom to support over the course of the final week of the campaign. Among those voters who decided in the final week of the campaign, Edwards received an impressive 45 percent of the vote, to Kerry's 30 percent. And among voters deciding on Sunday and Monday, when the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel released an endorsement of Edwards, Edwards received 53 percent of the vote.

Kerry's Victory

As has been the case throughout the primary season, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry performed best among voters angry with the Bush administration, and who painted a bleak picture of their own financial situations, as well as that of the national economy. Kerry's supporters also said they prize his perceived ability to beat Bush in November.

Seventy-nine percent of primary voters described the national economy as not good, or poor, and among these voters, Kerry received 42 percent of the vote. In addition, among the 39 percent of voters who said their own personal financial situation has worsened over the past four years, Kerry easily beat Edwards, 45 percent to 32 percent. In general, Kerry performed well among those voters with the lowest socio-economic status – the lowest income voters supported him at 50 percent, as did 44 percent of those with less than a high school diploma, and 48 percent of those with just a high school degree.

As in previous primary contests this year, Kerry's base of support came from liberal voters angry with the Bush administration. Forty-four percent of Wisconsin's primary voters described their feelings towards the Bush administration as "angry" and 43 percent of them voted for John Kerry, while only 28 percent voted for Edwards. Even among those who described themselves as only "dissatisfied" (38 percent of all voters), Kerry beat Edwards by seven percentage points.

Kerry voters continued to point to his perceived electability as the top reason for supporting him. Forty percent of Kerry voters said his ability to beat Bush was the primary candidate trait in their decision-making.

Dean's Distant Third

Despite making Wisconsin his do or die state, Dean's distant third place finish demonstrated his continued inability to revive his early popularity. Nearly one quarter of Wisconsin primary voters said they had at one point planned to vote for Dean, but eventually ended up supporting another candidate. Among these defectors, 47 percent went to Kerry, and 41 percent went to Edwards.

The CBS News exit poll was conducted by Edison / Mitofsky for the National Election Pool. The survey contains 2,277 voters, and has a margin of error of + 3 percentage points.

Monika L. McDermott is assistant professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, where she teaches and conducts research on voting behavior and public opinion. Before joining the University of Connecticut, McDermott worked in election polling for CBS News and the Los Angeles Times. She holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California, Los Angeles.

By Monika McDermott

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