Beto O’Rourke’s brief stint in the spotlight of American politics will forever be remembered as one of the dreamiest, most optimistic, and most poorly executed campaigns of the 2019 primary season. Few other candidates started with such high expectations, and none have fallen as hard. His failure is stunning for a number of reasons. Even before he announced his candidacy, he had a bank account with $60 million in it, leftover funds from a failed Senate run in his home state of Texas in 2018. The day after he announced his candidacy, he raised a stunning $6 million. Few other candidates started off with such strong funding numbers. In addition, due to his highly publicized 2018 Senate run to unseat Ted Cruz in Texas, O’Rourke had the national name recognition that only the top of the field could match. Even Obama liked him. The race was his to lose.
The problem with starting out with such high expectations is that they are rarely met. To his supporter’s credit, no one could have foreseen the key liability that would ultimately doom O’Rourke’s campaign, namely his disorganization early in the race. After all, if the reports are to be believed, his major strength in the Texas 2018 Senate race was a formidable ground game. His campaign boasted one of the most active and well-organized grassroots campaigns in Texas history. The hope among Democratic strategists was that he would scale up this grassroots operation to the national level and inaugurate a new and potentially unprecedented social movement that would be the envy of every other candidate in the field. Early predictions put his potential reach on par with Warren and Sanders, both of whom are known for their fantastic ground game. O’Rourke’s supporters had the energy, they had the resources, and they had the recent experience of the Senate race to build from.
But almost immediately, O’Rourke’s lack of organizational leadership became a problem. The day before he announced his candidacy, he had to apologize to a major Democratic Party organizer in Iowa for scheduling errors. On the day he announced his candidacy, he could not tell reporters where his campaign’s first public event would be held the next day, and several major media outlets were ignored or forgotten by staffers in the early days. He had not even hired a campaign manager by the time he announced his campaign. Scheduling issues continued to dog him in the early days, and he often resorted to simply leaving his schedule blank. Instead of catering his media strategy to established media, he put out several off-beat videos on social media, one of a road trip in the lead up to announcing his candidacy, and then a Livestream of a dentist appointment soon after his announcement. The messaging was unclear, and voters started to lose interest. As it turned out, he was not the organizational wiz kid that the nation had expected him to be. Instead, he seemed like an amateur next to Senators and a former Vice President.
Eventually, he hired staff and got his campaign into gear. By the summer, he had hired a campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, and she had fleshed out his platform and put him on a better foundation for executing an effective messaging strategy geared to the established media. With his campaign stabilizing after a rocky start, he found himself competing with other relatively unknown candidates, like Pete Buttigieg and Corey Booker, rather than the top tier candidates that he had initially been compared to.
Then came a disastrous debate performance during the first Democratic debate. After a cringe-worthy attempt at Spanish in his opening statement, he was caught off guard by a broadside attack by fellow Texan politician Julián Castro, who excoriated him for his opposition to decriminalizing the Southern border. Beto was unable to respond and fell back on stilted, prepared lines that crushed his usual charismatic magnetism.
He later chalked it up to too much debate prep, but to voters, it didn’t matter. The damage was done. The compounding effects of so many early miscalculations, from the focus on social media to the lack of coherent scheduling, meant that he had very little room for triage following the poor debate performance. In the second quarter, he raised just $3.6 million and just $4.5 million in the third quarter. His campaign never recovered.
In retrospect, it is easy to see what probably went wrong here. During his Senate race, O’Rourke had ridden a wave of social media enthusiasm built on the force of his charismatic personality. Certain key staffers had harnessed this enthusiasm and effectively into a surprising and formidable grassroots campaign. O’Rourke himself may have been less responsible for this organization than his professional staff and enthusiastic supporters. After the Senate run, several staff members left and he failed to replace them in time, let alone expand the scope of his state-wide organization to be able to handle the far greater demands of a national campaign. This would explain why he seemed more organized than he actually was. Not even Obama-esque charisma can make up for that.
At the end of the day, Beto O’Rourke’s story is a classic tale of a politician’s failure to meet expectations. Instead of the organizational leader, everyone thought he was, he turned out to be a dreamer without a plan. At his final speech, after realizing he would soon run out of money, he announced the end of his campaign, calling it a “transcendent” experience. “As tough as this day is, there’s just something beautiful that’s going to stay with me, some kind of optimism I have about where the country’s going because of all the people I’ve met.”