Probably a good day to think about this since O'Rourke had his official kickoff rally today in El Paso. I watched it on C-Span and I'll have to admit that, despite some skepticism about his candidacy, I was impressed. (Plus he gets big points for coming on stage and leaving to The Clash's Working for the Clampdown!) He is a dynamic and inspiring speaker and he will be formidable on the campaign trail. That could turn out to be just as or more important than whether his policy ideas are particularly distinctive.
I note that the latest Quinnipiac poll has him in third place in Democratic primary preference behind Biden and Sanders, but ahead of Harris. And of course that was taken awhile ago before this rally; it will be interesting to see how his polling evolves in the next few weeks.
Tom Edsall's recent piece on "Is Betomania Real or Phony?" is worth reading in this context. Here are some excerpts from this piece, emphasizing the ways in which O'Rourke might well catch on (there are plenty of ways he might not too, which Edsall also covers in the article).
"Frank Wilkinson, a former colleague of mine, wrote at Bloomberg:
"O’Rourke is not the only candidate modeling decency as an antidote to Trumpism. But he’s the one who has best harnessed the anxiety and rage generated by Trumpism’s assaults on democratic values and transformed them into willful, defiant optimism."
Don Fowler, former chair of the Democratic National Committee, captures this feeling: “He clearly possesses a charismatic charge, a spark that few others have."....
A Texas Democratic operative lavished praise on Beto, on background, in order to speak freely:
"O’Rourke has an intangible energy that goes beyond the litmus test. On a national scale that could be monumental. It’s emotional. It’s not tangible. Beto tapped into something with nontraditional voters. People who never publicly supported a campaign were putting Beto signs in their yard. LeBron James wore his logo on a hat."....
[Scott] Reed, who ran Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign, went on:
"His Willie Nelson event in Austin drew 50k folks and was also a strong signal to young voters — even though very few voted. His performances in the debates was exceptional and added to his momentum. Cruz was the #1 G.O.P. fund-raiser and he got swamped every quarter. I see a little Bobby Kennedy in him."
Richard Murray, a political scientist at the University of Houston, was also impressed. He emailed:
"His appeal in Texas is a combination of an attractive persona with animated mannerisms that come across as cool and authentic to many (especially those under 35); boundless energy plus exceptional verbal skills that enable him to weave stories from folks he’s encountered on the campaign trail into compelling narratives (a rare skill) — displayed in an environment where voters in our very diverse and fast growing metropolitan areas have soured on the far right turn of Texas GOP leaders like Ted Cruz and Dan Patrick."
How about a national campaign?
"Will this combination work in a national primary featuring the most diverse set of competitors in the nation’s history? I do not know, nor does anyone else. But the retail politics states of Iowa and New Hampshire are great places to test his road show outside the Lone Star State."...
Robert Stein, a political scientist at Rice, is upbeat on O’Rourke’s prospects. He wrote me:
"Shortly after the November election progressives hit him hard for not backing their issue positions on guns and energy. My sense is that he is looking to avoid being defined on a left/right dimension/continuum. It seems like he is trying to define his candidacy as humane, pragmatic and capable of beating Trump."
Stein argues that
"he is sufficiently retail for places like Iowa and New Hampshire and if he can survive the rush before Super Tuesday, he should come out of the March primaries in the upper echelon of remaining candidates."
I am less skeptical of these arguments than I once was. I will be watching O'Rourke's candidacy closely as I suspect many of us will be.