Is Betomania fading already? The overflowing halls and enthusiastic crowds for 2020 Democrat hopeful Beto O’Rourke may be lessening out there on the campaign trail, most notably in Iowa. He hasn’t even had an excuse to jump up on a countertop lately. Too bad, so sad.
The challenge for O’Rourke is to hold the enthusiasm beyond his initial entry into the race for the presidential nomination. He’s gone from the flavor of the month to just another one of the now 18 candidates running in the Democrat primary. He’s still accumulating a healthy war chest of money, don’t get me wrong. And he’s attracting decent sized crowds. But the rock star reception O’Rourke initially received out on the campaign trail is fading. It is inevitable, of course, but it will be interesting to see how well Beto handles being a regular candidate
Yet by the time he left the state on Sunday, it was also clear that the euphoria that greeted O’Rourke’s entry into the race three weeks earlier has started to subside. The inevitable slog of competing in a packed Democratic primary is underway, and O’Rourke has not yet drawn the wave of national adulation from the left that his Senate run against Ted Cruz last year received.
“He’s going to have to do the work,” said Scott Brennan, an Iowa Democratic National Committee member and a former state party chairman. “And it isn’t all breathless, 300-person crowds.”
In the span of three weeks, O’Rourke has gone from overcrowded events with the overflow of curious voters standing outside venues, to only attracting 80 people to a noontime appearance. The Mayor of Dennison, Iowa commented to a Politico reporter that the event should have drawn 1,000 people. “For noon on a workday, this is absurd.”
I see two challenges for Beto as he moves forward. First, he has to continue to get his campaign up to a professional level. By that I mean he needs campaign infrastructure. He likes to be the free spirit guy. The one without the formal campaign apparatus, as though he’s just flying by the seat of his pants. That won’t serve him well for long and it looks like he’s recognizing that. He’s looking for a campaign manager. And he’s polishing up his act with gestures like introducing local officials at his events. All of this is really basic stuff, at least for those of us who have been in and around politics for any length of time, yet Beto seems to only now be learning the ropes.
Second, he has to do all he can to avoid the pitfalls of trying to be all to everyone. It’s the name of the game in politics, of course, especially in a raucous primary to embrace every new idea and run with it. Beto is an empty suit, which the voters may or may not eventually realize with virtually no legislative success to tout. He served in the House of Representatives for three terms yet was a back-bencher, unknown to anyone outside of the El Paso area for whom he served. He will have to get up to speed with other candidates in his ability to flesh out and articulate actual policy positions to potential voters, not just rattle off a bunch of popular talking points and try to say something bold enough for a sound bite on cable television.
At his event in Iowa City, a college town, O’Rourke only attracted a crowd of 120 students and the room was only half full. It was noted that crowds for Bernie Sanders have been twice the size of Beto’s recent ones.
Some high school students appeared to have ulterior motives for being there. Julian Wallace, 18, was clad in O’Rourke garb but told the Examiner that he was only wearing it as proof for an extra-credit assignment. His friend Aaron, 17, seemed to be sizing up the competition for his preferred candidate, saying he thought O’Rourke lacked the “big ideas” of former tech executive Andrew Yang.
Spectators noted that O’Rourke’s campaign seemed to struggle to get out information about the event, which was awkwardly timed on a Sunday afternoon when students are attending religious services, participating in extracurricular activities, or nursing a hangover.
Others in attendance said they were there just to hear the perspective of other candidates. One woman in the audience asked O’Rourke how he planned to define himself from all the others in the race.
O’Rourke is quickly learning that the national election is not going to be as fun for him as the Senate race in Texas was. In Texas, his support grew as he became familiar to potential voters. Plus he had the advantage of a really motivated Democrat electorate. There were big hopes of defeating Senator Ted Cruz and turning Texas on the path to becoming a blue state. The crowds were happy to settle for skateboarding stunts and Instagram videos.
During a press gaggle after the rally, O’Rourke admitted that he’s noticed fewer reporters at his events since he announced his candidacy on March 14.
“I’m learning, I’m becoming a better candidate,” O’Rourke told reporters.“There are fewer members of the media as we’re leaving these events,” he said. “I like that the ratio has changed a little bit as we have moved on, but I’m really struck by how kind people are, how seriously they take their responsibility to themselves and the rest of the country.”
His poll numbers are not moving much at all. He’s stuck at the 7%-8% level. Tuesday’s Morning Consult poll results show him at 8%. We’ll see how it goes for him as even more candidates emerge.