A few weeks ago, Jason Zengerle wrote a helpful breakdown for The New York Times of the potential Democratic presidential candidates for 2020. One name was notably absent, however: former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. That’s likely no accident: O’Malley barely made a ripple in the 2016 pond with only a few other Democratic primary candidates to contend with. The 2020 field is likely to be an ocean by comparison.
But I’d like to suggest here that this is a significant omission, and a telling one: O’Malley is playing out a party strategy that hasn’t worked in a while but might work now. If party elites (elected officials, activists, strategists, donors, etc.) are losing control of the presidential nominating contests — as they seemed to be in 2016 — O’Malley’s strategy might pay dividends. That doesn’t mean he’ll be the Democratic nominee, but it does mean we should pay attention to him.
That strategy starts with 2016. O’Malley was, of course, one of the few mainstream Democrats to enter the 2016 race even when the party seemed overwhelmingly in Hillary Clinton’s camp. He ultimately secured the support of less than 1 percent of Iowa caucusgoers, and he suspended his campaign shortly thereafter. He didn’t win a single pledged delegate at the Democratic National Convention. He never made much of a dent in national public opinion polls. So, basically, O’Malley briefly flirted with running for president and, like many others before him, simply failed and returned to relative obscurity.
But maybe it wasn’t all for naught.
According to candidate trackers, O’Malley spent 64 days in Iowa between 2013 and 2016, outpacing both Clinton (42 days) and Bernie Sanders (54 days).1 He trailed Sanders in days spent in South Carolina but still beat Clinton in time spent there. And O’Malley is still making those investments — he’s been among the most active potential 2020 candidates in terms of visiting three early-contest states (Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina).
I’ve been conducting interviews with Democratic activists and party officials in those early-contest states,2 asking which potential candidates for 2020 have already visited and made their interest in the Democratic nomination known. Nearly every person I’ve spoken to, without prompting, has mentioned O’Malley. What’s more, nearly everyone has noted that O’Malley has been a long-standing presence in these states since at least 2014. He’s even backed a gubernatorial candidate in the crowded 2018 Democratic nomination race in Iowa (for a candidate who worked intensely on O’Malley’s previous presidential campaign).
Why is O’Malley doing all this, and why didn’t it get him anywhere in 2016? To a considerable extent, he’s following the path paved by Democratic presidential nominees George McGovern in 1972 and Jimmy Carter in 1976. This was an important transition period: The party reforms following the Democrats’ catastrophic convention and bitter loss in 1968 had the effect of neutering party leaders. The quick switch from party conventions to primary elections determining delegates made it hard for party leaders to pick a favorite candidate. An entrepreneurial candidate could theoretically take the nomination by doing well in the early contests and using the momentum from those victories to do well in later states, securing a winning coalition of delegates through their own initiative regardless of what party elites in Washington wanted. McGovern, one of the authors of the new primary rules, figured out this system in 1972. Carter built on that model in 1976, spending a great deal of time in Iowa and New Hampshire and taking the nomination despite not being the preferred candidate of Democratic leaders — and despite few Americans outside of Georgia knowing his name a year earlier.
As “The Party Decides” argues, party elites figured out a way to reassert their control of presidential nominations by 1980. Their coordination and channeling of key party resources made it difficult for any candidate not in good standing with elites to do well in primaries and caucuses for any sustained period.
That system of elite coordination seemed to fall apart among Republicans in 2016. Arguably, Sanders’ strong showing in Democratic contests — despite winning little support among elected Democrats — suggests that the system is weak on the Democratic side, as well.3 But there’s evidence that this system has been fracturing for some time now. Barack Obama did not seem to be the candidate of Democratic elites in 2008 until after the Iowa caucuses, and Democrats really didn’t have much of a preference in 2004 other than someone who wasn’t Howard Dean.
O’Malley is operating in the McGovern/Carter model, betting that party elite control is dead or under great duress right now and that his strategy will work better in 2020 than it did in 2016. This is not an unreasonable gamble. To the extent that Democrats could coordinate in 2016, they had already done so around Clinton when O’Malley entered the race, and anyone not enamored of her already had a ready champion in Sanders. The next cycle is different. Party insiders have a great many options before them and aren’t anywhere close to coordinating on a champion yet. O’Malley may well win over many of them, but he seems more focused on being a fixture among early-state Democratic activists and cultivating goodwill among influential local people.
I am certainly not making the prediction that O’Malley will be the Democratic nominee in 2020. The field, at least for now, is far too inchoate, the political system too chaotic, and the contest too remote to say anything with such certainty. But O’Malley is playing a long game. His success or failure will tell us a good deal about just where the party system is today.