Now that Democratic primary voters have had a few days to ruminate on last week’s royal rumble Democratic debate, post-debate polling has begun to roll in. The newest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of likely Dem voters, released Monday evening, shows former Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren to be the big winners, with Biden still sitting pretty at 31 percent and Warren blasting into a strong second place at 25 percent. Things look grimmer for Kamala Harris, who has lost 8 points since NBC’s last poll in July and is now drifting forlornly in fifth place, her status as a putative top-tier candidate looking shakier than ever.
But perhaps the poll’s biggest loser was a guy who didn’t even make it into the tweet announcing the results: Beto O’Rourke, who is still stubbornly holding onto his candidacy despite mounting evidence that, like 2018, 2020 isn’t going to be his year.
Back in July, Beto was stuck in the doldrums at 2 percent, struggling to define what his campaign was about and smarting over having squandered the huge burst of Democratic excitement that greeted him when he launched in March. But Beto found his mojo in recent weeks, locked down and cornered the market on his new signature issue—federal gun control—and, last week, spellbound the audience at the Democratic debate with a fiery speech about how the moment had come for the federal government to get serious about assault weapon confiscation. Now, the results are in, and the new and improved Beto O’Rourke is polling at . . .
One percent. Ouch.
Is it time for Beto to see the writing on the wall? Well, a few qualifications are in order. The first point is that a single poll can only carry so much weight; others will trickle in over the coming days that may look somewhat rosier for O’Rourke. And the poll itself contains one important caveat: only 9 percent of respondents said that their minds were definitely made up, meaning there’s plenty of room for voters to switch sides.
Only—is there any reason to believe they’ll switch to Beto? If his new strategy of charging out to everyone’s left on gun control was going to be successful in peeling voters off the higher-ranked candidates, you’d think this week would’ve been the week that strategy started to show returns. After all, from a framing perspective, O’Rourke couldn’t have asked for a better debate performance: His “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15” moment was punchy and bold and raw and became the flashpoint quote of the night.
And yet Democratic voters are still looking elsewhere—whether because guns aren’t their primary issue, or because they value a candidate with more experience, or because they think someone more moderate might be better suited to take down Donald Trump—or for any one of a million other reasons. In the end, the why won’t matter much to Beto—only the plain fact that he can’t seem to get back above 2 percent.
Keeping all this in mind, it’s starting to look as though the gun control pivot was a grievous miscalculation on Beto’s part. He didn’t have to do this. When it became clear that Democrats were by and large looking for a different candidate this time around, he could very easily have slipped back into his role as one of the party’s most beloved young wunderkinds to bide his time for a cycle or two. There was even a logical alternate step forward right in front of him: Take another shot at the Senate by trying to unseat John Cornyn in 2020, a year that will be as favorable for Dems nationally as they can hope for.
Instead, by going for broke trying to convince Democrats nationwide to give him the time of day, Beto has very likely poisoned the well in his home state, the place he will need to marshal some votes in the near future if and when he decides to pursue a further electoral career after his presidential bid finally fizzles. It’s the political equivalent of dialing up a Hail Mary offense midway through the first quarter. Not great, Bob Francis!