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.

Is Beto O’Rourke Learning How To Troll The Media?

At 5:03 a.m. on Monday, Politico published a story on former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s “rocky rollout” to his presidential campaign, which launched last week.1

Roughly two hours later, O’Rourke’s campaign announced that it had raised $6.1 million in the first 24 hours after launch — more than any other Democratic candidate including Sen. Bernie Sanders, who raised $5.9 million.

Presumably, this was intentional on the O’Rourke campaign’s behalf. Having some good news in its pocket, it waited to announce its fundraising haul until a busier news cycle (Monday morning instead of Friday afternoon) and until the media narrative surrounding his launch had begun to overextend itself. O’Rourke’s $6.1 million in fundraising is important unto itself — more money allows a campaign to hire more staff, open more field offices, run more ads and compete in more states — but it sounded like an even bigger deal to journalists who had begun to hear whispers of fundraising totals that would fall well below that.

Indeed, I too had thought it was probably a bad sign for O’Rourke that he had not disclosed his fundraising on Friday when the 24-hour period ended, although I said that it would be a “good troll” if he had intentionally held off on announcing just to screw with media expectations:

It could be more than a good troll, in fact, if it suggests that O’Rourke and his staff are learning to manage media expectations, something that had been a problem for the proto-campaign in its pre-launch phase. Expectations management is a key survival skill for a modern presidential candidate — one that could come in handy later on when the media is trying to interpret, for example, whether a second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses was a good finish for O’Rourke or a bad one.

For better or worse, the primaries are partly an expectations game, meaning that it’s not just how well you do in an absolute sense that matters, but how well you do relative to how well the media expects you to do. Historically, for instance, the candidates that receive the biggest bounce to their national and New Hampshire polls after the Iowa caucuses are those who most beat their polls in Iowa — and therefore most beat media expectations, which are usually closely tied to the polls — and not necessarily the actual winners. The canonical example of this dynamic is Sen. Gary Hart and former Vice President Walter Mondale in the 1984 Democratic caucuses in Iowa. Even though Mondale dominated the caucuses with 48.9 percent of the vote to Hart’s 16.5 percent, it was Hart who got the favorable headlines as the media had finally found an alternative to the boring, predictable Mondale “juggernaut.” The next week, Hart came from well behind in the polls to win the New Hampshire primary.

The expectations game is dumb — among other things, it gives the media too large a role in the primary process — and maybe both voters and the media have become more sophisticated to the point where it matters less than it once did. (Recent Iowa caucuses have not produced especially large bounces, for instance.) I wouldn’t be so sure about that, though. Keeping expectations in check was a big problem in the Democratic primaries in 2016 for Hillary Clinton, who had one of the more robust victories of the modern primary era but who didn’t (and still doesn’t) get a lot of credit for it.

Conversely, one of President Trump’s big strengths in the primaries was to completely dominate media coverage — a big advantage when you need to differentiate yourself in a field of 17 candidates — while keeping expectations low. Usually, more coverage and higher expectations go hand-in-hand; the more hype you get, the more the press expects you to perform well in debates, polls, fundraising and, ultimately, in primaries and caucus. But Trump had a knack for trolling the media and for hacking the news cycle to make sure that he remained the center of the conversation. It’s not that this necessarily required great skill on Trump’s behalf, but he was canny enough to know that the media’s behavior is fairly predictable and therefore easy to manipulate. Meanwhile, lots of folks in the media — and certainly us here at FiveThirtyEight — were way too willing to dismiss polls showing Trump well ahead of the Republican field from the summer of 2015 onward. A high volume of coverage but low expectations is the best of both worlds for a candidate in the primaries, and Trump got it.

O’Rourke is going to get a lot of media coverage — and he’s one of those candidates who, like past failed candidates such as then-Gov. Rick Perry in 2012 and Sen. Marco Rubio in 2016, but also like successful ones such as then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016 — simultaneously seems to be overrated and underrated by the press and never quite at equilibrium. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s particularly important to stay at arm’s length when evaluating candidates like these, to wait for polling data or fundraising data or other hard evidence on how well they’re doing, and to avoid reading too much into the media narratives surrounding them because they’re prone to shift on a whim. O’Rourke’s fundraising numbers — as the most tangible sign to date of how his campaign is performing — were a fairly big deal, but so was his campaign’s apparent awareness about the importance of managing expectations.

From ABC News:
Beto O'Rourke faces criticism for saying he was 'born to run' for president