If you were a casual observer of politics, you might have concluded that Beto O’Rourke’s presidential campaign launch last week was a rolling disaster. Articles appeared mocking his lack of specificity on issues, his impulsive approach to the whole proposition of running for president, his sense of entitlement in presuming to run for president with as slight a record as he possesses, and even his habit of standing on tables to address diner crowds. Comic commentary on O’Rourke’s extravagant use of hand gestures (particularly in his announcement video) was so widespread that the president of the United States got into the act:
“I’ve never seen so much hand movement,” Trump said to reporters, adding that he’d watched O’Rourke in what he called a news conference earlier that day. “I said: ‘Is he crazy or is that just the way he acts?’”
On a more politically serious (and dangerous) note, O’Rourke’s jocular comment (which he repeated before walking it back) that his wife was basically raising their three kids while he ran for president spurred plenty of hostile discussion of the benefit he derived from being male.
Multiply all this criticism by the frequency at which he was raked over the coals by Republicans and supporters of Democratic rivals, and ratchet it up a few notches via repetition on Twitter, and you have a bit of a mess for a new candidate who had previously ascended on a wave of viral adulation just as intense as this apparent downward swoon.
Then a new week began with this breaking news (per NBC News):
Beto O’Rourke raised $6.1 million in his first 24 hours as a presidential candidate, according to his campaign, surpassing Bernie Sanders and every other 2020 Democrat who has disclosed their figures.
O’Rourke’s campaign announced Monday that he had taken in $6,136,763 in online contributions in the day after declaring his candidacy Thursday morning.
That’s right: Beto topped the $5.9 million in initial fundraising by Sanders that so overwhelmingly wowed the political world and solidified the story line that Bernie was the 2020 front-runner.
On one level this should not have been surprising. After all, O’Rourke’s phenomenal viral fundraising machine (producing a record $70 million haul without PAC dollars) is precisely why he gained so much national attention during his impressive if ultimately unsuccessful 2018 race against Ted Cruz.
But the timing made this news particularly important:
There were other signs the Beto Backlash had developed, well, a backlash of its own. BuzzFeed’s Molly Hensley-Clancy followed O’Rourke around Iowa, and discovered people there didn’t buy the negative hype:
O’Rourke’s entrance into the presidential race unleashed a wave of cynicism and hard-boiled skepticism on insider Twitter and cable news — the rough opposite of what his run against Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas elicited from the media last fall …
Across a breathtaking succession of stops throughout Iowa, from three different countertops, one podcast studio, and one truck bed, the first three days of O’Rourke’s campaign unfolded a world away. It wasn’t that Iowans hadn’t seen the skepticism about O’Rourke. It was that many of them didn’t much care. They saw an O’Rourke much closer to the one who stormed across Texas, coming within a narrow margin of defeating Cruz.
We’ll soon know from polling numbers whether the Beto Backlash damaged his standing as a candidate or if instead, like most of his rivals, O’Rourke got a bounce from all the attention. But you could forgive him for experiencing some dizziness from the wild swings in the tone of coverage he’s getting.