Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, who famously lost a senate bid against Ted Cruz (R-TX) in the 2018 election, is currently one of the front-runners in the Democratic presidential primary race. He has polled as high as 12% and as low as 5% in recent polls. He raised $6.1 million in his first 24 hours after announcing his candidacy, and a total of $9.4 million in the first 18 days.
I have to admit, I don’t get O’Rourke’s appeal. South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg makes sense to me, but O’Rourke is a mystery. It’s not that he simply doesn’t appeal to me (he doesn’t though), but that he clearly does appeal to a lot of other people, for reasons of which I am either ignorant or skeptical. 12% is great for a field of more than ten candidates. $6.1 million is even more than grassroots champion Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) raised in his campaign’s first 24 hours.
O’Rourke is sometimes called “relatable.” He was in a cross-dressing “post-hardcore” rock band in the early ’90s. He eats at Whataburger and skateboards in the parking lot. These things might be relatable to some people, but they don’t scream should-be-the-next-Commander-in-Chief to me. Different strokes for different folks, though, I guess.
That said, there is reason to be skeptical of O’Rourke’s early success. First of all, it seems worth underscoring that he lost to Ted Cruz. By the only measure that matters — votes — O’Rourke’s Texas senate campaign was not a success. Senator Cruz is not very popular, according to his approval numbers. Yet he spent less than half as much money as O’Rourke in the 2018 campaign and still won. Notably, Cruz also lost his run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 to none other than President Donald Trump, who is also very unpopular.
That said, big deal. Perhaps losing to someone who lost to the current president isn’t good enough reason to be skeptical that O’Rourke could win in 2020. But there’s more.
The Associated Press has called O’Rourke a “centrist,” but even if we grant that, what kind of centrist is he? When one digs beneath O’Rourke’s relatable rhetoric, which tends to be light on policy specifics and delivered from atop tables and bars “while characteristically waving his arms and gesticulating fervently,” the picture that emerges is someone who is economically conservative (for a Democrat) but socially progressive. Writing for The Daily Dot, Brenden Gallagher has offered as decent a breakdown of O’Rourke’s policy preferences as I’ve seen, which I excerpt here:
- “The Beto O’Rourke platform does not support Medicare for All.”
- “On the issue of immigration … he does propose some liberal reforms but is not in favor of transformational change.”
- “O’Rourke echoes the moderate Republican fascination with apprenticeship programs, and he uses the language of ‘economic growth’ when talking about infrastructure improvements. However, he is in favor of the progressive policy of rural broadband expansion and wants to expand family leave.”
- “Instead of a bold stance like free public college, his student loan policies are filled with half measures like expanding Pell Grants and promoting trade schools and ‘nanodegrees.'”
- “The progressive position O’Rourke is best known for is legalizing marijuana (which he views as a path to decreased gang violence).”
- “The Beto O’Rourke platform references banning the most deadly assault rifles on the campaign trail. Still, there is no evidence on his website that he supports an assault weapons ban.”
- “While there have been a number of Democratic politicians, including House Majority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who have shown a willingness to budge on reproductive justice, O’Rourke is uncompromising when it comes to women’s right to choose.”
- “As a congressman, O’Rourke earned a 100 percent approval rating from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.”
So O’Rourke might be more friendly toward free markets than other Democrats running for president (a low bar given that one of them, Sanders, is an actual socialist, but still). However, on social issues like marijuana and abortion, O’Rourke is squarely in the progressive camp.
This is a problem for O’Rourke because there are very few voters who want that combination (economically conservative, socially progressive). This same point has been made about former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who is considering running as an Independent. Look, for example, at this data from the 2016 election, from the Voters Study Group:
Notice the bottom right quadrant? That’s the quadrant of people who identified as economically conservative and socially progressive. That’s O’Rourke’s quadrant. Perhaps right now he’s getting by on his charisma, but I find it unlikely that his popularity will keep pace as his policies come to light.
Now, it is fair to note that both these axes are flawed. They reductively group a lot of disparate issues together. Some pro-life people wouldn’t mind legalizing marijuana, for example. There is no clear connection between the two issues that would merit grouping them in the same “Social/Identity” category. And perhaps these axes overlook other important electoral issues, such as the environment.
Nevertheless, it would also be unwise to dismiss the visible correlation between being a socially progressive economic conservative (or even centrist) and having no one to vote for you on election day. I could see someone who is centrist on both axes having a shot, but O’Rourke’s potential path to victory is hard for me to picture. To the extent that being “electable” means being able to appeal to a wide swath of voters, O’Rourke does not seem to qualify.
Now, maybe none of that would matter. If O’Rourke were to win the Democratic nomination, he’d likely gain a slew of supporters who would vote for him out of sheer partisanship and wouldn’t really care about his policies. Many socially and economically conservative voters reluctantly lined up behind Trump in 2016, after all, just because he was the Republican candidate. But the same data shows that Trump’s populism, the top left quadrant, actually resonates with a large percentage of voters. (Trump was economically progressive in some ways and socially centrist in others in 2016.) O’Rourke’s quadrant is nearly empty. Despite his conviction that he’s “born to be in it,” he doesn’t seem to have a natural constituency.
Perhaps O’Rourke will prove me wrong, but for these reasons I’m skeptical of his current polling and the media buzz surrounding him. I don’t doubt the accuracy of the polls. I doubt that he will continue polling so well. The mismatch of markets and morality that makes up O’Rourke’s known policy stances does not bode well for him.
But who knows? Maybe in 2020 Whataburger will be enough.
Image credit: Beto O’Rourke in Cleveland by Erik Drost