The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus.
Writen by Daniel Nichanian. Reported by Bryan Bissell, Alycia Dolan, Christine Escobar, Steven Greenberg, Ethan Hova, Adam Moorad, and Joshua Williams.
For Democratic candidates, all roads lead to Iowa. But no one has more riding on the January 3 caucus than John Edwards. Iowa has become Edwards' veritable Alamo. Anything less than a clear win and the former Senator and Vice-Presidential candidate will likely have no choice but to immediately surrender his candidacy.
Coming off his stunning last-minute surge in the 2004 Iowa caucus, Edwards has made the Hawkeye State the seemingly exclusive focus of his campaign and started off this cycle as the clear favorite to take the state.
But a steady decline throughout the past few months has put his strategy in doubt. Engaged to Edwards since 2004, Iowa Democrats have started dating around. While his campaign is confident that when all is said and done, the most committed caucus-goers will remain faithful to John Edwards, there's little question that he might be watching his political fortunes get blown across the prairie.
Edwards benefited early from the flurry of polls showing him leading or tied in Iowa but is now struggling to remain relevant in the face of the media's pointed interest in a showdown between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. A poll taken in March by American Research Group had Clinton and Edwards dueling it out 34 to 33 percent, with Obama far behind at 16%.
Yet Edwards has weakened in the state since then. By July, ARG showed Edwards dropping down to 21 percent, before hitting an all-time low of 15 percent in its most recent polling installment released at the end of October. This latest ARG poll has Edwards running third, behind Clinton's 32 percent and Obama's 22 percent.
Interviews conducted this weekend with county chairs, student leaders and campaign organizers - from the capital in Des Moines to the rural South to the union town of Dubuque - paint a picture of an Edwards campaign hoping that its superior organization will carry it through the finish line. But the buzz on the ground suggests that voters are troubled by recent stories about Edwards, and how much of an opening he has left remains in doubt.
Tom Henderson, chair of the Des Moines-based Polk County Democratic Party, readily acknowledged that Edwards' support has declined in recent months. "The momentum is flipping away from him and is primarily going towards Clinton and Obama," he said. "He can regain traction by the caucuses, but that is not the direction it is going in right now."
Jennifer Lunsford, the chair of the predominantly rural Jefferson County Party and a member of the State Central Committee switched from Edwards is now backing Chris Dodd. She confirms that Edwards' supporters are straying as they are getting to know other candidates. "My sense is that Edwards' supporters are not as sure a thing as they were a year ago," she said.
Yet Edwards still has a lot going for him in Iowa. The caucuses reward the candidates with the most robust organization, and the Edwards campaign inherited its infrastructure from the previous presidential campaign cycle and was able to quickly build on it. Today, Edwards' organization in the state appears as strong - if not stronger - than his rivals'. The Des Moines Register recently reported that Edwards had 130 paid staffers in the state, lagging behind Obama's 145 but ahead of Clinton's 117. The campaign has focused on finding county chairs and scores of volunteers throughout the state - ensuring that Edwards' support is deep-seated enough that it will translate to caucus votes. Rod Bakke, a part-time volunteer at the Edwards Dubuque office, believes the campaign's motto that organization will end up trumping everything else. "The polls reflect personalities, media coverage," he explained. "They really don't reflect yet the grassroots feelings of the people."
The Edwards camp is confident that its core backers are much more committed than those of the other campaigns. In a low-turnout system like the Iowa caucuses, that is sure to boost Edwards significantly as only the more dedicated voters end up agreeing to spend an evening publicly defending a candidate.
A memo released by the Edwards campaign on October 27th emphasizes that, "Among those Iowans that will most certainly attend the caucuses, Edwards is the clear frontrunner. In the Iowa caucuses, having the most dedicated, experienced base of supporters will be critical to success." The memo goes on to note that Edwards does best in polls that have a tight screen, one "that more closely reflects likely turnout."
Essential to this strategy is support from unions, which are key caucus players that can drive up turnout and rally supporters like no others. Edwards recently got the endorsement of the Iowa chapter of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Under the national union's rules, this means that only the state SEIUs that have also endorsed Edwards can come in and organize in Iowa. Listing all labor groups backing Edwards, the memo concludes that "these unions represent about 17,000 workers and their families in Iowa - a powerful bloc given that the highest caucus turnout in history was 126,000 (in 1988)."
Kim Molt, chair of the Democratic Party of rural Webster County and a Clinton supporter, confirms the memo's assessment from the ground. She senses that the Iowans who supported Edwards in 2004 are preparing to back him again, and praised the former Senator's strategy. "It's all a numbers game in Iowa, which is what makes it so different from primary states," she explained. In an obvious hit to Senator Obama's hope of expanding the voter universe, she added that, "Senator Edwards and Senator Clinton are hitting the right group of people who actually caucus."
The Edwards campaign is seeking to complement his organizational strength by focusing on Iowa's rural areas. Given the peculiar voting rules of the caucuses, a candidate will emerge with higher numbers if their support is spread out rather than concentrated in a few areas. Edwards recently became the first candidate to visit the state's 99 counties, and his team likes to argue that he is paying attention to parts of Iowa that are typically neglected by Democrats. The October memo insists on the campaign's commitment to rural areas -"He is the only candidate to have announced an organization of 99 rural county chairs (in April) and 1000 rural supporters." - and uses it as a broader argument for electability in the general election.
Edwards finally started running ads last week - much after other candidates were blasting the airwaves. The Clinton and Obama campaigns have spent between $3 and $4 million already, and even Bill Richardson had ads up over the summer. With his new $800,000 media buy, the Edwards camp believes it will increase the candidate's visibility and get back some of the lost momentum. Mark Bowers, a student organizer at the University of Iowa, emphasized that he was aiming towards a similar goal on his campus. "We have to get his name out there," he repeated.
But that Edwards is now running a distant third after five years of near continuous presence in the state indicates that there might be deeper problems for the North Carolina Democrat. Everyone in the state knows who Edwards is, and most of those likely to vote come January 3rd have probably met him at least once in person since he started campaigning in 2002.
Jefferson County's Lunsford explains that she changed her mind after noticing that the Edwards of 2008 was not the same candidate as the Edwards of 2004. "He is not connecting this time as he was last time," she noted. Indeed, Edwards has thoroughly changed his message in the past four years when he campaigned as a sunny optimist. Today, he uses more radical rhetoric to denounce the dire state America finds itself in. Judging by Lunsford's reaction, this has left many Edwards supporters in the cold.
More troubling for Edwards, many voters are questioning his sincerity. Lunsford revealed that many Iowans she has talked are bothered by reports that Edwards recently received money from hedge funds. "They felt that they would support him until that came out," she said. "But with this new money issue people have been bothered." And Henderson is hearing an even larger charge on the ground in Des Moines. "They were several things that undermined his anti-poverty message," he listed. "His haircut, the hedge funds and his house."
Whether or not it keeps up a strong organization, the Edwards campaign will have to address these concerns buzzing on the ground to make sure that all those who have moved away from his candidacy keep an open mind towards supporting him in the coming months, as Edwards intensifies his rhetoric and fills the airwaves with advertisements. Lunsford noted that Iowa voters "pay attention to all the different candidates and then make up their mind at the last minute."
Caucus voters who back a candidate who does not reach a threshold of 15 percent at a particular caucus place will have to switch their support or stay out of the process. And thus Edwards can still hope to benefit from the residue of good will many of his previous backers likely have for him.
Even if Iowans enter Caucus Day dating a smaller candidate like Chris Dodd or Bill Richardson, they might come out having married John Edwards. As Lunsford put it, "You sure need to go in the caucuses with at least a second choice ready; and sometimes you should even have a third."