BETO O’ROURKE has been soul-searching ever since his narrow defeat to Ted Cruz in 2018. He has published wistful video-diary entries from fog-covered Liberal, in Kansas, and Pueblo, in Colorado (“A lot of big trucks rolling down Pancake Blvd and there aren’t any sidewalks”). The search finally ended with him gazing at the adoring lens of Annie Leibovitz’s camera. “Man, I’m just born to be in it,” he told Vanity Fair, “and want to do everything I humanly can for this country at this moment.” But in a field of more than a dozen other candidates, will that be enough?
Handicapping a presidential primary election this early is a bit like asking a monkey to play darts. This is doubly true in such a crowded field. Nevertheless, due to his knack for retail politics, his ability to appeal to both progressives and moderates, and his unmatched fundraising prowess, Mr O’Rourke begins his campaign in the top tier of primary candidates.
The best evidence of Mr O’Rourke’s strength is his performance in last year’s Senate race in Texas against Mr Cruz. Mr O’Rourke did roughly eight percentage points better than he had any right to. Based on the partisan lean of Texas, and the fact that incumbent senators who run for re-election typically have an advantage, the race ought to have been easy for Mr Cruz. In fact, he only won by 2.6 percentage points.
Turnout in last year’s Senate race increased by more than 3.7m votes relative to the 2014 election, according to the Texas Secretary of State. More impressively, the 8.4m votes cast in last year’s contest rivalled turnout in the 2016 presidential election, a feat uncommon in mid-term elections. That cannot be entirely attributed to Mr O’Rourke: the Democrats’ blue wave carried them to success nationwide. But the fact that Mr O’Rourke came within 600,000 votes of turnout in the last presidential race while running 6 points ahead of Hillary Clinton, and ahead of every other statewide candidate that year, is a testament to his ability to win over at least some Republican voters.
That enthusiasm can be measured in dollars. Mr O’Rourke enjoyed the benefit of a previously unimaginable campaign fund in 2018. He raised $80m for his race against Mr Cruz, almost half of which came from contributions of less than $200, according to the campaign finance website OpenSecrets.com. The 2020 race is likely to be an order of magnitude more expensive, and a candidate who can raise a lot of money will start out ahead. Mr O’Rourke also has a vast appetite for retail politics. In his 2018 campaign, he visited each of Texas 254 counties. Successful campaigns in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two primary states, are made in a similar fashion.
Still, it is not certain whether Mr O’Rourke’s over-performance in Texas would translate to the national stage. It could be that he did well because he is more moderate than the typical Democrat and because Texas voters are rather conservative. Indeed, according to the political scientists who developed the DW-NOMINATE algorithm to score the ideologies of senators and House members using their voting records in Congress, Mr O’Rourke was more moderate than 77% of Democrats serving in the House of Representatives last year.
That relative moderation could be an asset. Research suggests that voters do not pay close attention to candidates’ policies, often projecting their own views onto the candidate they like. But given that Democrats need to find a way to win back voters who switched from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, it might make sense to pick someone who cannot easily be characterised as an extremist.
Mr O’Rourke is left enough to stand a chance in his party’s primary. He voted with fellow Democrats 93% of the time when he served in Congress, which is slightly less than the average Democrat but nevertheless high. He holds notably liberal positions on border security and immigration: last month, he said he would “absolutely” tear down the border wall in his home city of El Paso, Texas if he were elected president. Mr O’Rourke also made headlines last year when a video of him defending the rights of NFL players to protest during the national anthem went viral. He co-sponsored a bill to make it harder for states to limit abortions and supports universal health coverage, though has shied away from the Medicare-for-all plan that some of his opponents support.
That Mr O’Rourke has a reputation as a moderate but can claim a leftish record suggests he has mastered the shape-shifting required to thrive in a primary and then change tack in a general election. He still faces long odds. Americans have only elected two presidents for whom their highest qualifying office was the House of Representatives, and one of them was Abraham Lincoln—a man of extraordinary political and intellectual ability. But he has an Obama-ish (or Trump-ish) ability to excite people in the small coffee shops of Keokuk, Iowa, or at large campaign rallies, such as the one he held his in 2018 with the greatest living Texan, Willie Nelson.
Some have accused Mr O’Rourke of being all style and no substance, but one of those qualities can be taught. He possesses the uncoachable one. Primary voters, like generals, are always fighting the last war. Last time out, Democrats learned that if voters do not like a candidate, they will not listen to her policies, however detailed they are. If Democrats carry that lesson into Iowa and New Hampshire, Mr O’Rourke has a good shot at winning.