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Why Beto O’Rourke’s Campaign Failed

Beto O’Rourke has played games with the media before, but he got a last laugh of sorts — at least a wistful chuckle — by dropping out of the presidential race on Friday afternoon, sending political writers into a tizzy right before the weekend. And although his candidacy once had great promise, O’Rourke’s exit from the race came down to his weak poll numbers and reduced fundraising numbers, as well as the fact that he may never have had the base of support he needed to truly compete for the Democratic nomination.

Coming off a close loss in Texas’s 2018 Senate race against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, O’Rourke entered the presidential race with great fanfare in March, though some wondered if he had waited too long to fully capitalize on the national notoriety he gained from his 2018 performance. Still, O’Rourke’s initial polling numbers suggested he might really be in the mix to compete for the nomination — he was polling at 10 percent or more in some national polls not long after he announced. However, his survey numbers quickly deteriorated as the race moved along, and he spent the past four months mostly polling below 5 percent even after he tried to revive his campaign in August by tacking left on some issues and focusing more on President Trump.

O’Rourke’s tumble in the polls was also accompanied by fundraising difficulties. Having been a prodigious fundraiser in 2018, he seemed capable of attracting the resources to run a top-level presidential campaign, and he showed early promise by raising $6.1 million in the first 24 hours of his campaign, the second best opening day after only former Vice President Joe Biden. But fundraising dollars started drying up shortly thereafter. He had raised only $13 million by the end of the second quarter, and added just another $4.5 million in the third quarter.

His debate performances didn’t help him recover either; in fact, his most recent performance seemed to have hurt him. After the October debate, O’Rourke’s net favorability among Democratic primary voters fell by about 6 points in our post-debate poll with Ipsos, the biggest decline for any of the 12 candidates on stage. His place at future debates was in serious jeopardy, too. O’Rourke was two qualifying polls shy of making the November debate and had yet to register a single qualifying survey for the December debate.

But O’Rourke might always have struggled to attract a large enough base of support in the primary given the makeup of the Democratic electorate. As a moderate three-term congressman, he won over many suburban white voters in his Texas Senate bid, but as editor-in-chief Nate Silver wrote back in July, a base of white moderates, particularly younger ones, wasn’t enough. As you can see in the table below, only about 12 percent of 2016 Democratic primary voters fit all three descriptors — young, white, moderate — based on data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study.1

There aren’t many young, white, moderate Democrats

Share of 2016 Democratic primary and caucus voters, grouped by age, race and ideology

Share of Democratic primary electorate
Group If age, race and IDEOLOGY were uncorrelated Actual
Young, white, liberal 16.9% 19.2%
Old, white, moderate 14.3 16.8
Old, white, liberal 13.6 14.2
Young, nonwhite, moderate 10.6 13.8
Young, white, moderate 17.8 12.4
Young, nonwhite, liberal 10.1 10.1
Old, nonwhite, moderate 8.5 8.4
Old, nonwhite, liberal 8.1 5.1

Source: Cooperative Congressional Election StUDY

This meant O’Rourke needed to make inroads with other groups to build a broader coalition, which might explain his leftward pivot on issues, particularly gun control. He made headlines in the September debate by calling for a mandatory gun buy-back program. It’s also possible that he shifted left because of Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s rise in the race, as the mayor has also tried to play to the middle. (Buttigieg’s surge in the polls in March and April also happened to coincide with O’Rourke’s decline.)

But the polls don’t lie: The pivot didn’t work. For a young politician who might be mentioned as a possible candidate in future elections, his leftward turn may have also damaged his ability to run for statewide office in Texas again, as it’s still a Republican-leaning state. Who knows where we might see O’Rourke next, but his exit shows that sometimes early campaign strength doesn’t pan out.

Footnotes

  1. The CCES is a poll of more than 50,000 Americans conducted by YouGov in conjunction with Harvard University.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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