Even before he took the stage to announce his campaign for president on Saturday, Martin O’Malley was having trouble being heard. His campaign trailer — which began with images of amber waves of grain blowing in the wind, set to stirring piano music — began promisingly enough. “I believe that we are standing at the threshold of a new era of American opportunity,” video O’Malley declaimed from a large screen hovering over the supporters gathered in Federal Hill Park, overlooking Baltimore.
But something was wrong: The audio started to cut out. “If only we have the guts — fight — ” the video version of O’Malley stuttered, before going silent altogether. His supporters, in an attempt to smooth the awkwardness and buy the sound guy some time, let out a cheer. When that didn’t work, they began chanting O’Malley’s name. But the sound never came back, and the cheers died down again until an announcer introduced the candidate and his family.
O’Malley spoke solemnly about the dangers of income inequality and how “the American dream seems for so many of us to be hanging by a thread.” He talked about “the thread of generosity, compassion and love that brings us all together, as one American people.” But there were other distractions. Protesters in the back of the crowd started heckling the former Baltimore mayor over his zero-tolerance policing policies — the violence that made Baltimore national news last month has brought a fresh wave of criticism at the worst possible time — blowing whistles and screaming “black lives matter!” In a crowd of a couple hundred, it was impossible not to hear. At one point a drone buzzed overhead. Still, O’Malley gamely pressed on, defending his record as governor of Maryland and making a progressive case for the Democratic nomination. It was a forceful case for why he should be the Democratic nominee, but he struggled to be heard.
If all the glitches sound like too obvious a metaphor for O’Malley’s standing in the presidential field, it’s also not wrong. His name recognition is low. Hillary Clinton is the top choice of 63.6 percent of Democratic primary voters, according to the poll averages of Real Clear Politics, followed by two non-candidates: Elizabeth Warren with 12.5 percent, and Joe Biden with 9.5 percent. Then comes Bernie Sanders, with 8.8 percent. O’Malley comes in around 0.8 percent.
The conventional wisdom right now is that Clinton would have to implode in order to not be named America’s Next Top Democrat. Not just get caught up in a scandal over her emails as secretary of State, or some Clinton Foundation impropriety — I mean that she would literally have to spontaneously self-combust. You don’t need to be a historian to know that there are good reasons to doubt Clinton’s inevitability. But as The New Republic’s Brian Beutler smartly points out, 2016 is not 2008 in one very important way: There’s no single, big issue like the Iraq War that so neatly divides Democrats and telegraphs to voters what a candidate stands for. And so the question Hillary’s challengers need to answer (quickly, if they want to remain viable after January) becomes: Do voters want something different? And what does different look like?
O’Malley has been making all the right moves. He has the résumé of a presidential candidate: After serving eight years on the Baltimore City Council he made a risky bid for mayor as the only white candidate in a crowded field of Democrats, and won. In 2006, four years after Esquire named the then-39-year-old “The Best Young Mayor in the Country,” he took on an incumbent Republican governor, Bob Ehrlich, and won again. In his second term he was appointed chair of the Democratic Governor’s Association — which gave him an important role in shaping the party’s messaging and strategy in the 2012 campaign. He has been traveling to places like Iowa and New Hampshire for more than a year, digging in on the guitar-playing and selfie-taking long before certain other candidates were road-tripping in a Scooby van to Iowa. And most important, he’s been staking out a position as an unflinching progressive voice in the Democratic Party: signing a gay-marriage bill into law, pushing for in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, arguing for allowing unaccompanied minors to stay in the country, repealing the death penalty, backing increased gun-control laws, and raising the minimum wage.
There have been other complications. A Republican swept the Maryland governor’s mansion in 2014 after a campaign spent railing against O’Malley’s record on taxes, denying his lieutenant governor a chance to carry on their administrative agenda. (Republicans would say O’Malley raised a bunch of taxes; Democrats would say he raised the income tax on top earners but lowered it for everyone else. Both would be true.) In the wake of violence last month over the death of 25-year-old African American Freddie Gray while in police custody, David Simon (creator of The Wire and frequent O’Malley sparring partner) launched a scathing critique of his police policies that ricocheted through the national press.
Maybe the biggest hurdle standing in O’Malley’s way is the charmingly charmless pugilistic socialist from Vermont, Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders, who jumped into the race last month, is currently sucking up all of the attention as the more-progressive-than-Hillary candidate.
“Going into this election he looks to one side and he sees Hillary Clinton,” says Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston-based Democratic strategist. “And on the other side he sees Bernie Sanders. I think he’s getting a bit squeezed. What he has to look at now is where can he pull off an upset, because he’s splitting a lot of really progressive liberals with Sanders and with Hillary Clinton.”
The reason he’s splitting those votes with both Sanders and Clinton is because Sanders is nowhere close to having progressives locked up. If anyone does, it’s Clinton. Aside from a few key differences — Sanders and O’Malley oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, whereas Clinton is unclear — we have yet to see really sharp contrasts between the Democrats. Clinton and O’Malley both support same-sex marriage (though O’Malley’s supporters are quick to argue that he showed leadership on the issue earlier than she did.) They both want to go further than the president in expanding rights for undocumented immigrants. They both are talking about income inequality. Until the race gets further along and the candidates are forced to articulate their positions more, we won’t know where the real contrasts between them are.
“He’s a bit of a young bookend to Bernie Sanders on the issues, so it’ll be interesting to watch how that challenge plays out against Hillary and where she engages,” says Laura Chapin, a Denver-based Democratic strategist. “As a progressive, if we have all the Democratic candidates arguing among themselves who’s better to address income inequality, I think that’s a great conversation to have.”
No matter how well he does, a conversation might be the most important thing O’Malley brings to the race. Even Democrats who are inclined to support Hillary don’t think it’s a smart strategy to turn the primary process into a coronation. “The presidency is not a crown to be passed back and forth by you between two royal families!” O’Malley told the crowd. It was one of his best lines.