Skip to main content
Menu
Is Beto O’Rourke Overrated Or Underrated?

Take a look at prediction markets and you’ll find what bettors think is a clear top tier of four Democratic presidential candidates. Three of the names are exactly who you’d expect to see. There’s Joe Biden, the former vice president, who has led in the vast majority of state and national polls (even though he hasn’t yet announced a bid for president). There’s Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the runner-up in 2016, who is second and rising in the polls and who has already raised lots of money and drawn huge numbers of people to his rallies. There’s California Sen. Kamala Harris, who realized the biggest gains in the polls following her announcement in January, who potentially has the broadest coalition and who seems to have the most support from party leaders in early states.

And then there’s … Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas Congressman who has never held statewide office, who lost his bid for U.S. Senate to Ted Cruz last November and who has spent most of his time since then trying to find his way out of a post-election “funk”/midlife crisis.

That’s a deliberately troll-ish characterization of O’Rourke, who has some strong attributes as a candidate, including the potential to appeal to a broad coalition of millennials, moderates and possibly Hispanics. His performance against Cruz was actually quite strong — one of the four best performances by a Democratic Senate candidate last year along with Sanders, Joe Manchin and Amy Klobuchar — relative to Texas’s partisanship and Cruz’s incumbency status. It’s not uncommon for candidates to take some time to decide whether to run for president, and lately, O’Rourke has given fairly clear signals that he does want to run for the White House after all.

But like a candidate such as Klobuchar or Cory Booker, O’Rourke would seem to have a roughly even mix of upside potential and downside risks. A good prospect, but not necessarily someone who has established himself in the big leagues, as Sanders has.

I’m guessing that you — yes, you!, dear reader — agree with me so far. I’m guessing that you don’t take O’Rourke’s chances as seriously as you do those of Biden, Harris and Sanders. That’s not to say you don’t think he could win, just that you wouldn’t put him in that top tier.

I’m guessing that because … I already asked you about it. In a series of (unscientific) Twitter polls I conducted on Monday, I asked people to assess the chances of 16 actual or potential Democratic candidates winning the nomination. O’Rourke didn’t come out as one of the front-runners, but instead in a second tier along with Elizabeth Warren and Booker.1

@NateSilver538 Twitter followers are bearish on Beto

But they’re bullish on Warren and Booker

Chance of winning the presidency according to …
Candidate @NateSILVEr538 poll Betting markets*
Kamala Harris 17.7% 18.4%
Bernie Sanders 16.9 18.1
Joe Biden 13.8 15.1
Elizabeth Warren 9.8 5.1
Beto O’Rourke 9.4 14.3
Cory Booker 7.5 4.6
Amy Klobuchar 5.2 4.8
Sherrod Brown 4.2 4.9
Kirsten Gillibrand 3.2 2.2
Pete Buttigieg 1.9
Julian Castro 1.7
John Hickenlooper 1.5
Tulsi Gabbard 1.5
Michael Bloomberg 1.2
Jay Inslee 1.0
John Delaney 0.5

* Average of PredictIt and Betfair as of 11 a.m on March 5. Only candidates with liquid markets in both PredictIt and Betfair are listed. Probabilities are adjusted so that they equal 100 percent once also accounting for unlisted candidates.

So I’m here to make the case that maybe you’re wrong and that maybe O’Rourke really does belong in the top tier. I’m not sure I entirely believe the case, but I’m going to make it, so hold tight. We’re about to enter the Beto Quadrant, where Democrats are always exactly one election cycle from flipping Texas and the only content is Pod Save America.

[ … ENTERING BETO QUADRANT … ]

Things are so much clearer to me now, dear reader. By virtue of being a FiveThirtyEight and/or a @NateSilver538 follower, you see, your political tastes are much too highbrow. You like Warren because of her detailed policy stances. You’re bullish on Harris and Booker because you think they could unite the different factions of the party as evidenced by their strong start in endorsements.

Most Democrats aren’t like you, though. They don’t care that much about policy or any of that shit. They almost certainly have never visited the FiveThirtyEight endorsement tracker. They don’t even follow the news cycle all that closely. They weren’t aware of Beto’s road trip, let alone that it became a subject of derision by smart-aleck journalists. They just want someone who can beat Trump.

And from what they do know about Beto, they like him, he makes them feel good, and they think — despite his loss to Cruz — he’s a 2020 winner.

Start with Beto’s favorability ratings, which are among the strongest in the field. In this week’s batch of Morning Consult polling, for instance, which is culled from interviews with more than 12,000 Democratic voters, Beto had the second-best ratio of favorable to unfavorable ratings, with 43 percent of Democrats saying they have a favorable view as compared to just 8 percent with an unfavorable one. Only Biden’s ratio is better, and indeed, Biden, Beto, Sanders and Harris are the four strongest candidates by this metric, just as betting markets have them.

Democrats who know Beto O’Rourke like Beto O’Rourke

Share of Democratic voters who had a favorable impression or unfavorable impression of each candidate according to a Morning Consult survey

Candidate Favorable Unfavorable Ratio of favorable to unfavorable
Joe Biden 79% 11% 7.2
Beto O’Rourke 43 8 5.4
Bernie Sanders 75 15 5.0
Kamala Harris 52 11 4.7
Cory Booker 43 12 3.6
Sherrod Brown 23 8 2.9
Elizabeth Warren 54 19 2.8
Eric Holder 32 13 2.5
Kirsten Gillibrand 32 14 2.3
Amy Klobuchar 28 13 2.2
Julian Castro 25 12 2.1
Terry McAuliffe 17 9 1.9
Pete Buttigieg 13 7 1.9
Jay Inslee 12 7 1.7
John Hickenlooper 12 8 1.5
Tulsi Gabbard 16 11 1.5
Michael Bloomberg 33 23 1.4
John Delaney 13 10 1.3
Steve Bullock 10 8 1.3

Survey conducted from Feb. 25 to March 3, 2019. Respondents were given an option to say they had never heard of a candidate

Source: Morning Consult

Beto also has the potential to make a big splash if and when he announces — in contrast to candidates like Booker, who are well-liked by Democratic voters but whose entry into the race didn’t create major news. Look at Google search volume for some of the major Democratic candidates dating back to Labor Day and you’ll find that the spike of interest in Beto on and around Election Day last year exceeded that for any of the Democrats when they announced their campaign so far.2

Then there’s Beto’s ability to raise loads of money. He brought in more than $80 million in individual contributions in the 2018 cycle, more than double the fundraising haul for any other candidate for Congress last year (not counting self-financing or party and PAC contributions). Almost half of these contributions, $37 milion, were unitimized, meaning that they came from small donors. Sure, the mechanics are going to be different now that Beto is competing against other Democrats and not just Cruz. That was nonetheless an impressive accomplishment — the most money raised in individual contributions by any Senate candidate, ever — and Beto will have a heck of a donor list to start with.

O’Rourke lapped the field in money raised in the 2018 cycle

2018 congressional candidates who raised at least $20 million in individual contributions

Candidate Party State Total individual contributions Small-donor (unitemized) contributions
Beto O’Rourke D Texas $80.1m
$36.9m
Claire McCaskill D Missouri 32.0m
11.5m
Ted Cruz R Texas 30.5m
12.0m
Jon Ossoff* D Georgia 29.5m
19.1m
Heidi Heitkamp D North Dakota 25.6m
11.5m
Bill Nelson D Florida 25.5m
7.2m
Doug Jones* D Alabama 24.5m
13.8m
Tammy Baldwin D Wisconsin 24.2m
9.4m
Jacky Rosen D Nevada 22.9m
8.4m
Elizabeth Warren D Massachusetts 21.3m
13.3m

Self-funding is excluded.

* Special election

Source: Federal Election Commission

So by these rather important metrics — fundraising, favorability ratings, virality in Google searches — Beto indeed looks like a top-tier candidate. Are they the fanciest metrics? No! And that’s fine. The point is not to overthink it. Beto was sort of a candidate-celebrity not all that long ago, which is not a bad thing to be when you have to differentiate yourself in a field that will likely consist of about 20 candidates. (It worked pretty well for President Trump!) And nothing has really changed since then other than that Beto has been out of the spotlight, a problem that would instantly fix itself once he announces his bid. The candidates with the strongest launches to date, Sanders and Harris, are running well to Beto’s left; indeed the moderate-ish, beer-track “lane”3 is wide open, with Klobuchar off to an OK-but-not-great start and Biden not yet having decided about whether to run at all.

Furthermore, the various mini-controversies Beto had in January — about his road trip, about his Instagramming an interview with his dental hygienist (something that was misdescribed in media accounts as “live-streaming his teeth cleaning”), about his sometimes answering interview questions with “I don’t know” — are things that only media snobs care about and aren’t substantively important, as evidenced by the fact that they didn’t dent his favorability ratings one bit. Indeed, to the extent that pundits and political analysts are more bearish on Beto than people in betting markets, that’s at least as likely to be a favorable indicator for Beto as an unfavorable one, considering the pundits’ track record in situations like these.

[ … EXITING BETO QUADRANT … ]

I’m back. I’m home! I’ve returned safely from the Beto Quadrant, and I mostly feel fine, although I feel an inexplicable urge to order a Sleep Number mattress, promo code #PODSAVE.

I’ve also almost managed to convince myself that O’Rourke really is a top-tier candidate after all, although I expect the feeling to wear off after a few more hours.

Here’s what I really think. I think O’Rourke has the potential to have a very strong launch, as measured by the various metrics (polling gains, fundraising, impressive staff hires, endorsements, media attention) that we’d usually measure it by. O’Rourke was a pretty big candilebrity in 2018, and I think it really does help to have a differentiated brand in a divided field. Furthermore, although the “lanes” thing is way overdone, there are still quite a few moderate Democrats (both voters and “party elites”) who might be looking for a place to hitch their wagon. O’Rourke doesn’t have any endorsements yet,4 but he’s been getting plenty of encouragement from influential Democrats to run, especially from former Obama staffers.5 Conditional on that strong launch, I think he belongs in the top tier.

He also may have missed his moment, or he may not look the same to voters now that the sugar high of almost beating Cruz has worn off. The road trip and dentist stuff may not have mattered to voters, but it didn’t necessarily reflect great self-awareness or judgment. And the dynamics of a white man running in a field full of women and people of color — and potentially getting the nomination despite having considerably less experience than several of them — are not great in the context of contemporary Democratic politics. So for the time being, I put Beto in Tier 1.5, behind the Harris/Biden/Bernie group but ahead of the rest of the Democrats.



From ABC News:


Footnotes

  1. In the Twitter polls, I gave readers four choices: that the candidate had a greater than 20 percent chance of winning, between a 10 percent and 20 percent chance, between a 5 percent and 10 percent chance, or under a 5 percent chance. To more precisely estimate the average reader’s probability, I treated having a 10-20 percent chance as equal to a 15 percent chance, and a 5-10 percent as equal to a 7.5 percent chance. The other two categories (greater than a 20 percent chance or less than a 5 percent chance) are more ambiguous — e.g., greater than 20 percent chance could mean 20.1 percent, or it could mean 99.9 percent. But based on a regression analysis comparing betting market prices to reader estimates, I treated a greater than a 20 percent chance as equivalent to a 30 percent chance and a less than a 5 percent chance as essentially zero (0.1 percent). I then adjusted the average probabilities such that the total probability for all candidates I asked about equalled 97 percent, leaving 3 percent left over for other candidates I didn’t mention.

    Betting market prices are based on an average of prices at PredictIt and Betfair as of Tuesday morning at 11 a.m., shortly after the Twitter poll ended. I only estimated betting market prices for nine candidates who had robust markets at both exchanges; for other candidates such as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, there wasn’t enough betting activity to reliably estimate prices. Finally, I adjusted the cumulative probability for the nine robustly-traded candidates such that it matched the cumulative probability for the same nine candidates in the Twitter poll.

  2. Of course, you could create different comparisons that don’t come out quite as favorably for O’Rourke. Dial the analysis all the way back to 2016, and the peak of search traffic for Sanders considerably exceeded the spike of interest in O’Rourke last year. Georgia state Sen. Stacey Abrams — who might run for president after all? — had a similar peak in search interest around Election Day last year, although that could just mean it would also be a big deal if Abrams ran for president, and not that it wouldn’t be a big deal if O’Rourke did.

  3. Warning: Outside of the Beto Quadrant, believing in “lanes” may be dangerous for your prognostication powers.

  4. Not that you’d necessarily expect him to get that many endorsements since he isn’t officially running.

  5. Or at least he was as of a few months ago.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Comments