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Martin O’Malley Shouldn’t Try To Out-Liberal Hillary Clinton

Martin O’Malley is a star in Democratic primary polls. But that’s not a good thing. Pollsters give candidates a “*” symbol when they get less than 1 percent support. So just how is O’Malley going to fight all the way back against Hillary Clinton? Reportedly by offering a more progressive vision and running to Clinton’s left. There’s one main problem with this strategy: It makes no sense.

I’ve already noted that Clinton is polling strongly among liberal voters. She’s also received a number of endorsements from elected officials in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, something that she didn’t have eight years ago which is highly predictive of primary success. But let’s add one more important element: Clinton is more liberal than O’Malley.

We can see this using three ideological ratings, one based on fundraising, one on public issue statements and one on votes in Congress. (We used the same technique with Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.) I standardize these scores on a scale from 100 (most liberal) to -100 (most conservative). No one metric is perfect, but by averaging the three together, we hope to get a better measure of a candidate’s ideology.

  • Fundraising, for instance, will be key to any O’Malley challenge. But he doesn’t have a history of raising money on the left. Clinton earns a 58 compared to O’Malley’s 41 standardized score on fundraising. Bernie Sanders — who is likely to run to Clinton’s left if he runs — is actually on her left. Sanders scores a 78.
  • O’Malley doesn’t have a history of saying very liberal things, either. According to his public statements as rated by, O’Malley is a “moderate liberal” with a standardized score of 25. Clinton is a “hardcore liberal” with a standardized score of 53.
  • In terms of a congressional voting record, O’Malley, a former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor, doesn’t have one because he was never a member of Congress. Clinton’s was a 39 on the standardized scale, to the left of more than 50 percent of congressional Democrats in the 113th Congress.

Averaging the three systems, Clinton scores a 50 to O’Malley’s 33 (Sanders rates at 61). That doesn’t suggest O’Malley has much room on Clinton’s left.

I should note that Crowdpac, a different system that looks at a similar set of criteria, finds the ideological gap closer. Crowdpac has Clinton’s score, standardized to the scale I’m using, at 41; it has O’Malley at 40 (Sanders is at 54). Even in this more optimistic assessment, O’Malley is ever so slightly to Clinton’s right.

Some might argue that O’Malley’s past statements and fundraising undersell his liberalism. O’Malley has a liberal governing record when it comes to the death penalty, immigration and same-sex marriage, among other issues. But as Slate’s Alec MacGillis has pointed out, O’Malley has a big problem talking liberal. He sounds a lot more like a technocrat than a liberal champion, which partially explains why his public issue statements aren’t too far left.

Can O’Malley crank up the liberal rhetoric on the campaign trail? On Twitter, a number of smart commentators pointed out that Howard Dean had been fairly moderate as governor of Vermont before launching a very liberal campaign for president.

Never mind that Dean lost the 2004 campaign or that he now endorses Clinton for president, the O’Malley-Dean comparison falls flat for another key reason: O’Malley has no signature issue to run to Clinton’s left on. Where Dean had the Iraq War (like Obama four years later), O’Malley has a giant question mark. Maybe it’s Wall Street reform, which O’Malley has been talking up recently in light of Clinton’s supposedly cozy connections with the financial sector?

Remember, 36 percent of Democratic voters thought the Iraq War was the biggest problem at this point 12 years ago. By the summer of 2003, 62 percent of them opposed the invasion. Today, 56 percent of Democrats have heard little to nothing about the Occupy Wall Street movement, which at its heart is about the government’s connection to the financial sector. Most Democrats either don’t support its general goals or have no feeling toward it, let alone believe it’s the most important issue.

O’Malley can come at Clinton all he wants. Many Democrats believe that Clinton needs a challenger. But trying to outflank her on the left doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.