Edwards' exit-poll exit.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 3 2004 2:00 PM

Edwards' Exit-Poll Exit

Why and how the candidate bailed out.

John Edwards is the first candidate for president to pull the plug on his campaign in large part on results not yet reported to the public.

A little after 8 last night, as the senator went before the microphones to deliver a well-crafted eulogy on his effort, the networks were supering "reports" on Edwards' plans to formally withdraw on Wednesday. But it was already over. He had already spoken to Kerry, presumably to congratulate him. Minutes later, Kerry's brother Bonesman in the White House would phone in his congratulations.

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What was Edwards' hurry? Polls had closed in only three states prior to 8 p.m. ET, and all that the public had been told until then was that Howard Dean had swamped Kerry in Vermont; Georgia (according to CNN) was too close to call (Edwards leading slightly in the votes counted); and, yes, Kerry won a big one in Ohio. At 8 they learned (no surprise) that Kerry had swept New England. But half the day's delegates were still, as reporters insist on saying, "up for grabs."

Based on this alone, Edwards, who had spent a year on the stump and more than $30 million, threw in his hand? Of course not. Edwards—like the network correspondents who keep pretending there were fresh results to be found at further poll closings—had learned hours before from exit polls that wall-to-wall landslide wins were being scored by Kerry everywhere but Georgia and Vermont. Those results, collected by the National Election Pool for the AP and the networks, had been known to those clients since early afternoon. But, faithful to their corporate bosses' cross-my-heart promises to Congress not to report those results until the polls close, they kept it off the air and off the wire as promised. (Slate cadged some results, as usual, and posted them around 3 p.m. ET.) And, as always, the data leaked not just to Slate, but to the candidates' personal pollsters. In Edwards' case, that would be Harrison Hickman, a world-class expert at sizing up the stuff.

Soon after he got it, Hickman surely informed his candidate what he needed to know: that Kerry would tally not just a comfortable but a vast majority of the day's 1,100-plus delegates. That, no matter what Edwards might have achieved in the Dixie megastates on March 9, he could never overtake Kerry. That he could not even hope to come close enough to make mischief at the convention—as did Ted Kennedy in 1980 and Gary Hart in 1984. That's what Edwards had known long before any of the polls closed, long before the viewing public had a clue, even before Slate posted the numbers. He did what he had to do if he did not want his campaign to wind up as quixotic.

As I said at the beginning, this is something new. Is it bad? We're apt to hear complaints about how the poll-driven shuttering of the Edwards campaign depressed the California turnout—since what amounted to a concession by Edwards came three hours before those polls closed. But it should be recalled that in 1980, Jimmy Carter famously conceded to Ronald Reagan while California polls were open because Reagan's announced Electoral College votes already exceeded the 270 needed to win. How Californians cast their ballot for president would have no bearing on the outcome. But last night was a case when, so far as the public knew, half the delegates being chosen that day and nearly half of those to be chosen overall were up in the air. And the front-runner's only serious rival for his party's nomination in effect called it quits. Good or bad? As they say at Fox, you decide.

Martin Plissner is former executive political director of CBS News and the author of The Control Room—How Television Calls the Shots in Presidential Elections.

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