Beto O’Rourke, who entered the race for president on Thursday, has drawn comparisons to another young, relatively inexperienced Democrat: Barack Obama.
And while there are ways that O’Rourke can claim to be like Obama, there are a number reasons he cannot (beyond biographical details).
First let’s tackle how they are similar:
1. Ability to raise money
One of the first big signs that Obama was going to be a serious challenger to Hillary Clinton was when they reported their first fundraising numbers. Obama raised nearly the same amount as Clinton the first quarter they were in the race. From that point forward, Obama outraised Clinton.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a better fundraiser than O’Rourke. He took in an astounding $80 million from individual contributors during his 2018 Texas Senate bid. That was more than double the next best fundraiser (Claire McCaskill of Missouri). In a field that could reach up to 20 people, money will be a key factor in building a campaign infrastructure and staying on the air with advertising. If O’Rourke can maintain the fundraising pace he set during his Senate bid, he may be able to outlast a lot of candidates who will have to fold up because of a lack of funds.
2. Energizing young people
Obama won the 2008 nomination because of the youth vote. Among those voters under the age of 30, he won by 20 points. He lost voters 65 years and older by 25 points.
O’Rourke’s 2018 bid illustrates how much he relies on younger voters. A very high 48% of his support in 2018 came from voters under the age of 45, compared with the 52% that came from those 45 years and older. The average Senate Democratic candidate saw only 39% of their vote from those under the age of 45. Put another way: O’Rourke’s base of support was 9 points more from young voters than the average Senate Democratic candidate nationwide.
3. Ability to drive turnout
One of the reasons Obama shocked the world was he brought in voters into the process who traditionally didn’t vote in the primary season. Indeed, many pollsters underestimated Obama going into the Iowa caucuses because they thought turnout was going to be lower. In those caucuses, an astounding 57% of those who came out were first-time attendees. Obama won 41% of them, coming in first place. He came in second place with 26% among those who had already attended a caucus in the past.
It’s a little difficult to distill how much O’Rourke drove turnout in 2018, but it seems he may have the gift Obama had. With O’Rourke running, 2018 Texas turnout was 90% of what it was in the 2016 presidential election. We’d expect a drop in turnout from a presidential to midterm election, but Texas’s drop was less than the average state with a Senate race. In the average state with a Senate race, turnout was 85% of what it was in 2016.
Back in the last midterm with a Senate race in Texas (2014), turnout in Texas was just 57% of what it was in the prior presidential race. In the average Senate race nationally, it was 68%. In other words, Texas turnout was better in 2018 versus the national average and was far worse in 2014. O’Rourke likely can claim some credit for that.
There are important differences to note, however:
1. Starting poll position
Obama started the 2008 race in a strong position. He was in second place in the polls to Clinton and polling at about 20% nationally. No doubt being seen as a clear competitor to Clinton allowed Obama to rake in massive money.
O’Rourke doesn’t start anywhere near Obama’s numbers. O’Rourke is averaging just 6% nationally and is in fifth place behind former Vice President Joe Biden – who has yet to announce a bid – and Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. Unlike Obama, whose numbers seemed to get stronger over time, O’Rourke’s numbers may actually be becoming weaker. O’Rourke’s dropped 7 points from 13% in the average December poll. He’s seen a 6 point drop from 11% to 5% in CNN’s Iowa poll.
2. A signature issue
Obama might be remembered for his “hope and change” slogan now. That slogan though was backed up by a very important policy distinction: his opposition to the Iraq War from the very start of it. Obama’s position was one that none of the other major Democratic candidates could claim. Iraq was one of the top issues during the 2008 primary. If you look at the exit polls, Obama won with voters who cared most about the Iraq War. He lost among those who cared most about health care and the economy. Simply put, Obama would have almost certainly lost in 2008 without his Iraq War position.
What is O’Rourke’s big policy difference with the other major 2020 Democratic contenders? Honestly, I have no clue. O’Rourke does have a more moderate congressional voting record than many Democratic candidates running this year. it’s no more moderate than the the polling leader (Biden), however. Critics of O’Rourke might claim that O’Rourke is Obama in style but lacking the substance.
3. Minority voter support
Obama didn’t win the 2008 primary without a disproportionate amount of support from black voters: He won by 67 points. Comparably, he lost to Clinton among all other voters by about 20 points.
O’Rourke has no history of having an unusual appeal to minority voters. In fact, he actually may have had a disconnect with them compared to the average Texas voter in 2018. O’Rourke got crushed in many heavy Hispanic counties in the 2018 Texas Democratic Senate primary to the relatively unknown Sema Hernandez. He easily won the primary overall.
Of the 10 largest Texas counties, Hidalgo County saw the worst turnout relative the number of voters in the 2018 general election. It has the highest percentage that is Latino of these ten counties. The next worse turnout was O’Rourke’s home county of El Paso, which has the second highest percentage of Latinos of these 10 counties.