Edwards pulls Kerry down

The invisible man of this election campaign has been John Edwards.

In recent days, as Democrats cast about for scapegoats for John Kerry’s sorry showing, many were asking, “Where’s John Edwards?” I recently pulled together some data that answers that question. Edwards has been quietly dragging the Democratic ticket further down in the polls.

My basis for this statement is an analysis of all the presidential election polls released between Sept. 1 and Sept. 26 and reported in The Polling Report. Focusing just on polls of likely voters, I found that 10 polls asked their trial heats using both the presidential and vice-presidential candidates’ names. Nine other polls read only the presidential candidates’ names.

On average, when Edwards’s name was added to the ballot, Kerry trailed President Bush by an average of 6.6 percentage points. But when Kerry alone ran against Bush, the Democrat was losing by only 1.7 percentage points, on average.

If you add in all the other polls that were of registered voters, 16 of them, the evidence against Edwards grows stronger. Kerry almost always does better without Edwards. Only three polls in September showed Kerry with a lead over Bush, and the two showing the biggest lead for Kerry (two points) didn’t include the vice-presidential candidates’ names. All five of the September polls showing Bush with a double-digit lead, among registered voters or likely voters, were based on ballots where Edwards’s name was included in the ballot.

At this point, Dick Cheney fans may be wondering whether the vice president doesn’t deserve a little credit for all this. Isn’t he helping the GOP ticket, you ask?

That’s entirely possible, but because the press and the Democrats have worked so hard to convince everyone that Cheney is a drag on Bush, I’d like to stay focused on Edwards’s shortcomings for his party.

The nature of Edwards’s downward pull on the Democratic ticket is hard to gauge. Is the North Carolinian simply a nonentity who fails to bolster Kerry’s appeal? Or instead, does little John bring some negatives to the presidential calculus? Polls run both ways. One recent network poll showed Edwards with a hard name ID of just under 50 percent. (Hard name ID is the percentage of voters who have formed an impression of a candidate — either favorable or unfavorable.) By comparison, the same poll found that Cheney had hard name ID of 65 percent. So simple recognition is at least part of Edwards’s problem. But it’s more than that. Edwards has consequential negatives.

In the most recent CBS poll, of those who know Edwards well enough to have formed an opinion of him, 44 percent hold an unfavorable impression. That may not sound like much, and it’s less than the 51 percent unfavorable rating of Cheney recorded among those who similarly knew him in the same poll, but Edwards’s negatives are nevertheless notable.

Even in his home state of North Carolina, Edwards isn’t carrying the load. The latest Raleigh News & Observer poll of likely voters, conducted statewide Sept. 20-22, has the Bush-Cheney ticket leading the Kerry-Edwards ticket by six points, 50 percent to 44 percent.

That newspaper’s August poll revealed that Edwards’s negatives in North Carolina, 39 percent among likely voters, are slightly higher than Bush’s (38 percent) and almost the equal of Yankee Democrat Kerry’s (41 percent) in the Tar Heel State.

While Edwards’s negatives did not grow during July and August, according to the News & Observer polls, Edwards was unable to protect his Massachusetts running mate from experiencing a significant leap in his own negatives since June.

Traditionally, very little is expected of vice-presidential candidates. But because Edwards was positioned opposite a man, Cheney, whose negatives sometimes exceed his positives, many Democrats held high hopes for the handsome young trial lawyer.

Those hopes have been dashed. Edwards won’t even help carry his home state.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for Republican candidates and causes since 1988.