O’Rourke is now on the precipice of running for president with “losing Senate candidate” as the most impressive line on his résumé. It was how he chose to run that campaign last year that sets him apart from his potential Democratic rivals. O’Rourke cast aside the hard-won heirlooms of Barack Obama’s campaigns: a vogue for data science, the grooming of a professional organizing class and a dedication to the humanism of one-on-one tutelage. Instead, his campaign followed principles that more closely resemble what Silicon Valley types call “hyperscale”—a system flexible enough to expand at exponential speed, paired with an understanding that getting big quickly can excuse and justify all kinds of other shortcomings.
In political terms, it amounted to a massive bet on a strategy of mobilizing infrequent voters instead of trying to win over dependable ones. National campaign strategists are paying close attention to how O’Rourke did it: Few candidates have committed as fully, if a bit recklessly, to the belief that a monomaniacal focus on large-scale turnout is the most powerful tool Democrats have to capitalize on their latent numerical majority in the United States.
Less than two months after Malitz’s presentation in Austin, when the numbers came in, it was clear that Beto O’Rourke had managed a showing stronger than any Texas Democrat in a generation. It was also clear that that wasn’t enough: On January 3, it was the Republican incumbent, Ted Cruz, who was sworn in to the Senate. Is the Beto for Senate campaign a blueprint for how a Democrat—including perhaps O’Rourke himself—ought to run nationally in 2020? Or is it a cautionary tale in the limits of mobilization?