It’s the same with Beto O’Rourke. His boosters say he’s like Obama: appealing to moderate whites because of his unifying, upbeat message, but also rousing to progressives, who find him idealistic and inspirational. As one Democratic bundler told Politico, “He’s Barack Obama, but white.” But the white part matters. You can’t assume O’Rourke is more electable than Kamala Harris or Cory Booker without explaining how O’Rourke could match the epic African American turnout numbers that Obama elicited in 2008 and 2012, but that Clinton did not match in 2016.
Moreover, saying that O’Rourke would appeal to “moderate” or “centrist” whites glosses over a critical distinction: It depends on which “moderates” we’re talking about. O’Rourke’s cultural liberalism, pro-business background, and unifying, optimistic rhetoric might serve him well among the upper-middle-class Democrats and independents who admire Michael Bloomberg. But is a candidate who has backed Trade Promotion Authority and praised NAFTA best suited to winning back working-class voters in the industrial midwestern states that gave Trump the presidency? In a recent interview with Thomas B. Edsall of The New York Times, Paul A. Sracic, a political scientist at Youngstown State University, suggested that “O’Rourke’s vague, ‘We all need to come together’ message will not resonate with people who see life as a battle. Working class voters believe in pugilistic politics.” Why is Sracic’s take less plausible than that breathless Democratic bundler’s?