Is Beto O’Rourke running for President?
This question looms large over the early days of the 2020 Presidential campaign. Sought-after campaign staffers and endorsers are champing at the bit to know the answer before they cast their lots with one of the dozens of other very qualified and talented candidates who have been not-so-discreetly running for president since Donald Trump was sworn in.
Political pundits, campaign reporters, and seasoned operatives are speculating, with most political elites cynically looking down their noses at the prospect of a Beto O’Rourke 2020 campaign. “He hasn’t paid his dues;” “He is a creation of the media;” “It’s not his time.” The whole conversation around Beto has been eerily familiar to me, because these are the exact arguments people made to me when I told them I was considering working for Barack Obama 10 years ago.
Washington was wrong about Obama and there are many reasons to believe it’s wrong about Beto. Not only should Beto run, there is a strong case to make that if he were to do so, he would be one of the strongest candidates in the field.
First, the best campaigns marry enthusiasm and organization. Any smart campaign with competent staff can build a top-flight organization, but enthusiasm is not something that can be engineered in a lab. It is spontaneous and only a few candidates are able to inspire it. Enthusiasm means more volunteers, more first time voters, and more grassroots donations.
I have never seen a Senate candidate—including Obama in 2004—inspire the sort of enthusiasm that Beto did in his race. This is about more than Lebron wearing a Beto hat, or Beyonce sporting one on Instagram. It’s about the people all over the country with no connection to Texas with signs in their yards and stickers on their cars. It’s about the hundreds of thousands of people across the country who gave small dollar donations because they were inspired by his candidacy and moved by his pledge not to take PAC money. It’s about the crowds of thousands in small towns that would turn out to hear him speak on rainy weeknights. It’s about the passionate army of volunteers who knocked doors, made calls, and sent text messages. He built a national grassroots movement for change and many of those people are waiting to be called into duty and head to Iowa and New Hampshire. The enthusiasm is real and matters. If Beto were to go to Iowa City next week, I am confident he would draw a crowd three times larger than any candidate has since Obama first stumped there.
Second, despite losing his Senate race, Beto has a very strong case to make that he can put together a winning coalition. Democrats are engaged in a never-ending, emphatically stupid, ill-informed debate about whether the party should appeal to a growing base or try to court more moderate independent voters. This is a false choice—up until the moment the electoral college is abolished, the only way a Democrat can piece together the 270 votes necessary to win the White House is do both. Our nominee needs to be able to excite first time and periodic voters to turn out AND win over independent voters, particularly in the exurban and rural counties that turned Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania from Obama blue to Trump red. This was the formula Beto used to do better than any Democrat has done in Texas in decades. According to exit polls, first time voters made up one-fifth of the electorate and went for Beto by 14 points. Beto’s successful progressive appeal to the base didn’t turn off the middle—he did 12 points better with independents than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. That wasn’t enough to win in Texas, but if he even came close to repeating that performance nation-wide, he would deliver every state Obama won in 2012, and could make Arizona, North Carolina, and Georgia competitive.
Third, the DNC has played with the primary calendar multiple ways this century and yet Iowa is still kingmaker. Victory in Iowa propelled Al Gore, John Kerry, Obama, and Hillary Clinton to their nominations, and Beto seems tailor-made for the state. The O’Rourke campaign in Texas was essentially an Iowa Caucus campaign on a grander scale. He visited every one of Texas’s 254 counties. He held town halls every night and seemed to enjoy the back and forth with voters that is key to a successful Iowa campaign. If you can win in Iowa, you can win the White House, and Beto just proved he has what it takes to win in Iowa.
Finally, Democrats have fallen behind Republicans on the campaign-innovation curve—it’s a key reason we lost in 2016. But a Beto O’Rourke presidential campaign has the potential to change this. Like Obama’s 2008 campaign, Beto’s Senate campaign felt different because it was different. He didn’t hire a pollster. He spoke like an actual human instead of an AI-generated amalgamation of focus grouped talking points and consultant approved buzzwords like “fight” and “everyday Americans.” He spent his money on digital advertising rather than dump it into the black hole of TV ads that fatten consultant pockets more than they inform voters; and he communicated with voters in innovative ways. By live-streaming so much content, Beto was able to tell his own story directly to the voters without filtering it through the funhouse mirrors of the legacy media. Tens of millions of people watched Beto’s impassioned defense of NFL players exercising their right to protest, taking his message directly to the people, instead of relying on the mainstream media or political Twitter to do the job for him. If Democrats run the same old campaign, using the same tired and outdated tactics, we will certainly lose to Trump. Our nominee must have the courage to run a different kind of campaign. Beto has demonstrated that courage.
None of this is to say Beto is our “best” candidate or “most electable” candidate or even the candidate I’d end up voting for in the California primary. It’s simply too early to know. The current list of possible 2020 candidates is as impressive, diverse, and talented as any I’ve ever seen, and we don’t need to go casting about for alternatives. No one knows what voters will be looking for two years from now, and you never know how good candidates are until they stand up in diners in New Hampshire and Iowa and try to explain why they, out of 300 plus million Americans, are best suited to become president. But to write Beto off is to repeat the same mistake pundits made with Obama.
In the closing days of the 2008 Iowa Caucuses, Michelle Obama would meet with undecided Iowans who liked her husband but were considering caucusing for one his opponents with the hope of voting for Obama in some future election. The future first lady, who we referred to as “the closer” for her ability to persuade undecided voters, would always respond with a version of the following: “This is Barack’s moment. This is our chance to bring real change. It won’t be the same in four or eight years. If you believe in Barack, the moment is now.”
Millions of people already believe in Beto O’Rourke, and that moment, for them and him, may be upon us.