Against the Grain

Why Beto Won’t Live Up to the Hype

Younger voters drive the media conversation. But older voters decide Democratic primaries.

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke on the Penn State campus in State College, Pa., on Tuesday
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
March 19, 2019, 8 p.m.

Beto O’Rourke is the Democratic presidential candidate of the moment, generating endless media attention, raising record sums of money, and drawing impressive crowds to his early schedule of campaign events. But despite the hype, he’s more of a political fad than a bona fide front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

Those who are bullish on O'Rourke’s prospects focus on his youth, charisma, and political celebrity. But he’s facing a lot of vulnerabilities that will become more apparent as the campaign develops. Here’s why O'Rourke will struggle to meet the high expectations set for him:

1. Older people still dominate Democratic primaries and caucuses. O’Rourke’s political appeal is strongest among younger Democrats. Those Generation-Xers and millennials dominate the overall culture, but have less clout in the early stages of the Democratic nominating process. That fundamental reality means a lot more than O’Rourke’s potential to have a viral moment on the campaign trail.

Here’s the statistic to remember: Voters older than 45 made up three-fifths of the Democratic primary electorate in the 2016 presidential campaign. These voters aren’t glued to their smartphone for the latest viral video, generally pay more attention to policy, and aren’t obsessed with identity-politics litmus tests like their younger, more-progressive counterparts.

2. The primary map isn’t favorable to him. The first two states on the nominating map are dominated by older, white Democrats. The next primary, South Carolina, features a Democratic electorate where African-Americans make up a majority. O’Rourke’s improvisational campaign style is a tough sell to Iowa caucus regulars who want concrete pledges on local issues, like farm subsidies and federal support for ethanol. His aversion to policy specifics is a mismatch for the New Hampshire town-hall regulars who demand specific answers to their endearingly parochial questions.

3. He’ll struggle to win enough African-American supporters. O'Rourke’s carefree personality is much more appealing to younger, white voters; it’s harder to see him connecting with the African-American electorate that makes up around one-quarter of the overall Democratic primary vote—especially in a field that includes Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Joe Biden.

O’Rourke’s supporters point to his willingness to speak candidly about race as evidence of his potential for a multiracial coalition. Indeed, his outspoken defense of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem went viral in his 2018 Senate campaign in Texas. But analyses of the midterm results showed that O’Rourke didn’t mobilize African-American voters at the same level as other core constituencies. His main achievement was persuading some typically Republican suburban voters to support his candidacy. Other high-profile Democratic candidates, like Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, were much more effective at turning out their base.

Early polling underscores that O’Rourke faces challenges winning over black voters. A poll of South Carolina Democratic voters commissioned this month by Emerson Polling found O’Rourke in sixth place, winning only 5 percent of the vote. Another poll of South Carolina Democrats, conducted by Change Research in February, found Biden, Harris, and Booker already receiving double-digit support. O’Rourke finished in fifth place, tallying 8 percent of the vote.

4. He’s not Barack Obama. Pundits like to compare O’Rourke to Obama’s grassroots-oriented 2008 campaign, but the similarities end with their charisma and idealistic personalities. Obama was able to rely on overwhelming support from the African-American community, focused on an issue (being against the Iraq war) that distinguished him from the rest of the field, and benefited from the historic stature of being the first black candidate with a realistic chance to become president.

As a culturally fluent white Democrat, O’Rourke shares a closer similarity to his party’s trendy candidates of the past who have captured the media’s attention—think Howard Dean in 2004 or Gary Hart in 1984—but have less appeal with the party’s rank-and-file voters.

5. He wouldn’t be a Democratic superstar without Ted Cruz. O’Rourke became a political celebrity because of who he ran against—the deeply-polarizing Cruz—more than as a consequence of unique political talents. The anti-Trump sentiment in the big Texas suburbs also pushed many swing voters into the Democratic column. O’Rourke’s close Senate race was a result of those larger trends. O’Rourke’s favorability rating on the Election Day exit poll (52-42) was significantly higher than Cruz’s (50-48), despite Texas’ conservative bent. That golden image won’t survive the national stage.

O’Rourke’s strong first-day fundraising suggests that he’s parlayed that campaign into a national movement. But it will be a lot more challenging to sustain that success against a like-minded field of Democrats than it was against a reliable Republican punching bag like Cruz.

6. His (thin) record hasn’t been fully vetted. O’Rourke was the beneficiary of glowing coverage as a David trying to take on a disliked Goliath in a ruby-red state. And even though he scored an enviable Vanity Fair cover upon launching the campaign, he’s faced a wave of critical stories in the early days of his presidential campaign.

Expect more pieces exploring his aimless pre-political professional life, like the one published by The New York Times last month. It’s an unfavorable contrast to many of his rivals, who can boast longer lists of professional achievements.

For more from Josh Kraushaar, subscribe to the “Against the Grain” podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.

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