A lot of people run for president. Almost all of them lose. So it does seem a bit odd that there is suddenly attention being given to the reality that Beto O’Rourke is, well, losing. That one of the 36 congressmen from Texas—okay, he’s a former congressman but you get the point—would be considered a serious candidate for president seems more surprising than his lack of movement in the polls. The last former congressman from Texas who lost a Senate election and wound up as president anyway was a guy named George H.W. Bush—and he made a few stops along the way after his losing Senate race, including an 8-year stint at the Naval Observatory in Washington.
So why is the political world so surprised that Beto hasn’t won the nomination yet?
The obvious answer is the expectations set by his truly impressive run against Ted Cruz, where he raised Barack Obama levels of money and almost pulled off the impossible trick of beating a Republican incumbent senator in Texas.
But the single most critical element in all of politics is timing. Beto had the good fortune – and sense – to run against one of the most singularly unlikable men on the American political scene and in a world in which Roy Moore was endorsed by a Republican president and the RNC, that’s no small achievement. I first encountered Ted Cruz when we were both working on the 2000 Bush campaign in Austin. No one liked him. The degree to which that dislike was felt intensely or more passively seemed to track according to the amount of time one was required to spend with him.
I first encountered Ted Cruz when we were both working on the 2000 Bush campaign in Austin. No one liked him. The degree to which that dislike was felt intensely, or more passively, seemed to track according to the amount of time one was required to spend with him.
I was involved in debate prep for then-Governor Bush and when I heard there was a guy working in the campaign who had been a legendary college debater, I asked someone from the policy shop, where Cruz worked, why he wasn’t involved in our debate prep. “Have you met him?” was the answer. I had not. “You know how weird Tim is?” He asked, referring to a famously oddball, but brilliant, character working in the policy shop (Tim isn’t the guy’s real name.) “If you went to a party with Tim and Ted Cruz, everybody would leave talking about how weird Cruz was.” “Wow,” I said, trying to picture what seemed impossible. “Yeah,” my friend said, “Wow. Keep him to paper.”
What he meant was that Cruz’s talents were best appreciated when he was writing and not in person. Contrasts make the best races and Beto was perfectly configured to run against Cruz. He was likable and comfortable in his own skin. He wasn’t intimidated by Cruz’s intellectual pedigree and was able to grasp Cruz’s total, global phoniness.
Cruz was that guy who delivers a fiery speech denouncing “coastal elites who attack the NRA,” even though he was born in Calgary, graduated from Princeton undergrad and Harvard Law School, was a Supreme Court clerk, worked in the White House, and is a former Assistant Attorney General. Hell, Ted Cruz’s wife was born in the coastal town of San Luis Obispo, California, holds a BA from Claremont McKenna College, an MA from Université libre de Bruxelles, and an MBA from Harvard University. She works as a Managing Director at Goldman Sachs. The only way these two could be less elite if they were married under the pyramid at the Louvre at the annual meeting of the Illuminati.
Most of all, Beto had fun and it’s not a bad sign of who is going to win a race to look to who seems to be enjoying it the most. At the end of the day Beto didn’t quite make it—but he did make a little bit of history and like another charismatic Irish guy, Conor McGregor, he knew how to act like he won when the fight didn’t go his way.
What’s happening today is that Beto isn’t posting up against Ted Cruz anymore. He hasn’t changed. The race has changed. Suddenly there are other likable characters lining up next to him and the guy everyone hates isn’t Ted Cruz but Donald Trump—which doesn’t get Beto much mileage in the primary.
None of this obscures the reality that Beto has talent—a lot of political talent. Polls show him beating Donald Trump and that never happened against Ted Cruz. All Beto has to do is get one on one with the sitting president of the United States—because he makes Cruz look like George Clooney.
The classic nominating pillars of the Democratic party are African-Americans, labor, and liberals. To win the nomination you don’t have to be first with all three but it’s hard to make it if you don’t win at least one of those groups and not get killed with the others.
Jimmy Carter came from a state that had little organized labor and few liberals—so he relentlessly courted the one segment of labor in Georgia: teachers. One out of every two Carter delegates in 1976 was a teacher.
With Jesse Jackson in the race, Bill Clinton didn’t have to win African-Americans; he just had to be the first white guy after Jackson knowing that the Democratic party in 1992 was not going to nominate a black man for president. By the end of the process in 2008, Barack Obama won African-Americans and liberals. Had Bernie Sanders been able to win a larger share of the black vote, he’d have beaten Hillary Clinton, easily. As it was, Clinton won labor, held her own with liberals, and won African-Americans.
The question for Beto is the same for each of the Democratic candidates: Which of those groups can he win? The most impressive number I’ve seen for Joe Biden is his strength with African-American women. It’s hard to imagine him losing if that holds. Elizabeth Warren is gaining against Bernie because she is stealing liberal votes. Pete Buttigieg has a base with LGBT voters—a strong subset of the liberal pillar—and is also taking other liberal votes from Bernie.
So what path is there for Beto?
There’s a reason Beto seems to love campaigning—he’s good at it. But even in Iowa and New Hampshire you can’t shake enough hands to win. You need an external force to give you a push. For Beto that has to be the debates.
More than any other candidate, Beto needs to dazzle Democratic primary voters on the debate stage and prove that he was indeed, “born to it.”
It’s not easy: the math of multiple candidate debates is brutal. How many minutes will you get to actually talk? In an hour-long debate, at most you might be looking at eight minutes. That knowledge puts tremendous pressure on candidates and often makes them swing wildly and miss—Rubio ridiculing Trump—or fall back on more tactical choices: I will use this debate not to win but to take out Candidate X and once that’s done, I can set broader goals for the next debate.
If I had a $100 to bet on the Democratic primary, I’d put $75 on Biden but my next largest amount would be on Beto.
Why? I’d bet that given the 2016 race and the desperate desire to beat Donald Trump, Democrats are not going to nominate a woman or African-American. Nor a gay male. Nor a Socialist who only joins the Democratic party every four years so he can attack the Democratic party. Yes, yes, that means a boring white guy will be the Democratic nominee and among the non-Biden boring white guys, Beto seems the best bet. He’s got the most political talent and if he can’t win one of those three pillars, he could be acceptable to all three with a shot at winning liberals.
Like a lot of candidates, Beto performs best when confident and feeling the love of a crowd. If he starts to surge and gets what would be perceived as a win even if it’s not an actual first place, the old Beto-versus-Cruz juju will come storming back and Donald Trump will help elevate him by attacking him.
Is it likely? See above: Most candidates for president lose. So, no, it’s not “likely.” But is Beto O’Rourke one of maybe five Americans who might be the next president of the United States? Probably so, and for a skateboarding dude from down by the border, Mexico way, that’s not so shabby.