vision 2020

Beto’s Cool, But Can He Win a Presidential Nomination?

If he overcomes some early tests, he could be a formidable contender. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The 2020 Democratic presidential contest obtained an intriguing new participant today as former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke released a video announcing his candidacy He’s the 15th significant candidate to enter the field, and in some ways the hardest to handicap.

By conventional terms, he’s an odd presidential prospect: a former three-term House backbencher from Nowheresville, Texas, with no significant legislative accomplishments and just one statewide race, which he lost. He is not, unlike that other Democratic political supernova, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, beloved by some distinct ideological faction. Indeed, what he believes and stands for remains fuzzy, aside from long-standing support for marijuana legalization and a decided sympathy for the undocumented immigrants that Trump has demonized.

But what the previously obscure O’Rourke established in his long-shot race against conservative Senate star Ted Cruz last year was a phenomenal ability to raise money in small batches, as the watchdog website Open Secrets observed:

O’Rourke may be one of the best fundraisers running for president in 2020, spending a record-smashing $79 million in 2018. In terms of candidate spending, it was the most expensive congressional election ever …

He renounced corporate PAC donations and received the bulk of his funds from individual contributions, more than $36.8 million coming from small donors. 

His mastery of social media not only helped him raise money, but created the avid national following that made a 2020 presidential campaign possible. And all those human and financial resources depended on O’Rourke’s preternatural gift for retail campaigning, which he demonstrated in knocking off an incumbent congressman in a 2012 primary and then against Cruz.

O’Rourke’s stump talents will now receive their acid test in the early-state abattoir of Iowa (where he is traveling this weekend), New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Particularly in Iowa, where other candidates had a head start in securing and organizing talent and showing the flag, he will succeed or fail in walking through some of the toughest grassroots terrain in American politics, with political media watching his every move. And he won’t have long to show progress. He’s been compared so often to Barack Obama as a campaigner that if he doesn’t light up Iowa like Obama did in the run-up to the 2008 caucuses, he may find himself written off as a flash in the pan. He’s already suffered significant erosion of his impressive showing in early polls by delaying his announcement (he slipped from 11 percent in December to 5 percent in early March in the authoritative Selzer poll of Iowa). And he’ll face another early pitfall this summer when candidate debates begin. If he doesn’t sharpen his issues profile by then, or shows a lack of substantive knowledge, he could suffer the fate of fellow Texan Rick Perry in the 2012 Republican contest, which he dominated on paper until he turned in terrible debate performances.

If, however, O’Rourke successfully deals with these initial challenges, his path to the nomination — and indeed, his rationale for candidacy — will become clearer. What he definitely showed in his Senate race was exceptional appeal to the two fastest-growing elements of the Democratic base, young voters and Latinos. He won a phenomenal 71 percent of voters under 30 (Hillary Clinton won 55 percent of this vote in Texas in 2016). His 65 percent of Latino voters was also an excellent showing, made more impressive by the fact that their percentage of the electorate actually rose from a presidential to a midterm contest, which is most unusual.

If this translates at all to the presidential race, it could make him viable. Bernie Sanders showed in 2016 that youth voter appeal can sustain a national campaign for months. And as a Spanish-speaker with a Latino nickname, O’Rourke’s appeal to that demographic group could be golden in the early state of Nevada, and the near-early state of California, particularly if the only Latino candidate in the field, Julian Castro, fails to get his long-shot campaign off the ground.

Assuming he’s still in the race after the early states have winnowed the field, O’Rourke’s ideological indistinctness could quickly become an asset rather than a liability, just as it was for Obama in 2008. If Joe Biden again doesn’t run, O’Rourke could pretty quickly build support among “moderate” voters and party elites worried about Bernie Sanders’s socialist self-identification. If Biden does run, O’Rourke’s highly conspicuous youthfulness offers a flattering contrast to the late-septuagenarian from Delaware. So long as he retains his magical fundraising touch, Beto can also stay in the contest for a long while as a potential party-unity compromise candidate.

The same factors that give O’Rourke some traction in the nominating contest also burnish his “electability” credentials, which could become increasingly important as Democrats contemplate the horrors of a potential Trump victory and reflect on the lack of “base” enthusiasm that so damaged Hillary Clinton. As Sasha Issenberg explained recently, Beto’s Senate campaign succeeded in a task that Democrats often talk about wistfully: expanding the electorate by mobilizing nonvoters:

 [It] amounted to a massive bet on a strategy of mobilizing infrequent voters instead of trying to win over dependable ones. National campaign strategists are paying close attention to how O’Rourke did it: Few candidates have committed as fully, if a bit recklessly, to the belief that a monomaniacal focus on large-scale turnout is the most powerful tool Democrats have to capitalize on their latent numerical majority in the United States.

Less than two months after Malitz’s presentation in Austin, when the numbers came in, it was clear that Beto O’Rourke had managed a showing stronger than any Texas Democrat in a generation.

Yes, Ted Cruz’s notoriety helped O’Rourke mobilize supporters, just as it helped Republicans mobilize their own. But in that respect, Cruz is just a shadow of the force for galvanizing voters of all sorts represented by Trump 2020. Democrats may decide they need a candidate who knows how to maximize their own vote.

There are a lot of “ifs” in any serious assessment of O’Rourke’s presidential candidacy, including the possibility that if he hits a rough spot in the road his golden media image could turn dark with descriptions of him as just another white man with a skimpy résumé and a sense of entitlement. His position in a field with five women has already exposed him to scrutiny over his involvement in parenting his three young children:

That sort of line may not work as well as it has in the past. But if Beto O’Rourke has any asset for certain sure, it’s the ability to charm his way past the kind of misgivings that would kill other candidacies. He may need it.

Beto’s Cool, But Can He Win a Presidential Nomination?