There have been all kinds of surprises so far in the Democratic primaries for President. One of them is that in the age of youthful activism, two old white dudes still top the field. Another surprise, at least to me, is the difficulty that well qualified candidates like Klobuchar, Harris, and Booker have had in gaining any traction. A big surprise is the splid rise of Senator Elizabeth Warren to the #3 spot in the polls, and they way she’s eating into Bernie Sanders support to do it.
But perhaps the biggest surprise, at least among the media, in the 2020 primary season, it’s the truly pathetic performance of former congressman Beto O’Rourke of Texas. Coming out of 2018, Beto, along with Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, were the rising star faced of the new, young, energetic, activist wing of the Democratic party. And yet, so far, in the ocean of the 2020 Democratic primaries, O’Rourke is splashing around like he has the anchor from the Titanic around his neck.Some in the media have tried to blame South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg for Beto’s difficulty in gaining popularity. In Buttigieg, you have another young, charismatic, energetic candidate with a compelling personal story, including Buttigierg being a gay, married, veteran. If I’m Mayor Pete, I’m lapping this narrative up like a kitten with cream, since it means that my message is resonating.
While I’m sure that Buttigieg is sucking some of the oxygen out of O’Rourke’s lane, I don’t think that Mayor Pete is the major reason for Beto’s ills. From where I’m sitting, Beto made a couple of critical errors right off of the bat that damaged him badly, and also suffers from one stigma that he can’t do anything about.
For one thing, O’Rourke badly misjudged his popularity, and the reasons for it. Coming out of the 2018 midterms, Beto O’Rourke was a rock star, no doubt about it. He enjoyed extremely high name recognition on the national stage, and he raised insane, presidential election style funding for a statewide Senate race, including a massive amount from out of state voters. But lets look at how and why he accomplished those two things.
Why in the hell was Beto so damn popular nationally in the first place? For one reason, and one reason only. because he was running against Senator Ted Cruz, easily the most hated and reviled member of the “Club of 100” in the country, in a state that had long ago become a pipe dream for Democrats in a national election. When Texas polls started showing O’Rourke with at least a theoretical shot in the race, and when both Cruz and the RNC started having hourly panic attacks, Beto started attracting national attention in the media. But it was superficial media attention at best. His name, a :05 clip of him speaking at a rally, and the latest poll numbers. The only thing that people outside of Texas actually knew about o’Rourke was that he was running against Ted Cruz, and giving him conniptions.
The same thing is true of his national donor base. The only thing that people knew about O’Rourke was that he was running against Calgary Teddy, a man who, with that beard, looks like somebody who stands around outside a school in a raincoat. Not only would beating Cruz be as satisfying emotionally as a warm, gentle spring shower, it would also be a cold, hard slap in Trump’s face, a national repudiation of his presidency. But wanting to have Ted Cruz spending all of his time pestering Heidi and the kids is a far way off from wanting Beto O’Rourke sitting in the Oval Office.
Which led to O’Rourke’s second terrible tactical decision, his campaign roll out. Following the 2018 election, Beto hit the talk show circuit. But not to talk up his candidacy for President, but instead to tease his potential candidacy. Beto made the mistake of reading too many of his own press clippings. To my mind, a good general rule of thumb is, If you’re the warm up act for the Rolling Stones, don’t make the mistake of thinking that the crowd came to see YOU! If Buttigieg ate into Beto’s following in the young, charismatic, compelling story lane, it’s because Mayor Pete was out there in the hustings, introducing himself and his agenda to the voters, while o’Rourke was sitting there with a foam ball on a string over our noses, like somebody teasing a cat. Beto’s self enforced inactivity also meant that he let other, earlier announcing candidates like Warren, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar snaffle up most of the high quality staff, both for their national campaigns, as well as staffing field operations in the early states. For a guy famous for having “pop up”offices in every precinct in the state, this was almost criminal mismanagement.
Now for the blot that is outside of Beto’s control. When you look at national polling for the Democrats, what is the one overriding characteristic that a 2020 Democratic candidate for president must have? Electability! Democratic voters are willing to forgive almost any other sin or position, just as long as the candidate can speed His Lowness on his way to his impending state criminal charges in New York. And what is Beto O’Rourke’s sole claim to political fame? Oh yeah. He’s the guy who lost to Ted Cruz, but only by three points. This may or may not be one of the reasons that Stacey Abrams is still sitting on the sidelines. If the public perception is If you can’t knock off the court jester, how can you topple the king?, that can be a daunting mountain to climb, especially with no other election for you to win in the interim.
Can beto O’Rourke overcome these early missteps and turn his campaign around? I don’t see why not, as they keep saying, “It’s early yet.” But it’s not that early anymore, is it? Beto is going to need a major “breakthrough” moment, and the first Democratic debate is only 15 days away. If O’Rourke doesn’t have his breakthrough moment on that debate stage at the latest, well then. As the Governor said in Pirates of the Caribbean, “It could be a short drop to a sudden stop.” Don’t touch that dial.