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Beto O’Rourke: not the new Lincoln but perhaps following in his footsteps

October 27th, 2018

Could losing an election be the best thing to happen to the 25/1 shot?

These are not normal times. In normal times, US presidential candidates are vice presidents, senators and governors: people who already have a record in high office. There have always been exceptions but even then, they usually conformed to the rule in a wider sense. Trump does not conform to the rule. Indeed, Trump fails to conform to many received rules of politics. The easy conclusion would be to suggest that it’s Trump who is the exception and while there’s an element of truth in that, the proper conclusion has to be that the old rules are now very imperfect guides – a conclusion strengthened by how close Sanders came to winning the nomination.*

If that’s so, what lessons should we take from it for the 2020 presidential election? The most obvious one is that we shouldn’t restrict ourselves to the usual suspects. Given that for quite a while, the Democrat field was dominated by the usual suspects – Sanders, Biden, Warren – that should have provided value elsewhere, and early backers of California Senator Kamala Harris will have already done well out of the woman who is now second favourite to win outright at 9/1 (behind Trump at 13/8).

So far, so normal. However, rising stealthily to seventh is Congressman Beto O’Rourke, priced at 25/1. For someone with only six years’ experience in the House, those would normally be extremely short odds. But as we’ve established, things are not normal. Qualifying criteria have changed and making an impression counts for more, and old-fashioned CVs, less.

    O’Rourke has benefitted hugely from that because he’s run a high-energy campaign in Texas against incumbent senator (and 2016 hopeful) Ted Cruz, raising more money in the process than any other senate candidate in history. Despite that, the likelihood is that he’ll lose.

Current polling puts him about 7% behind Cruz, which is a little more than the 3-5% it’s been for most of the campaign proper. As long as Cruz can get his vote out, he should win.

However, winning isn’t everything. No Democrat has won state-wide office in Texas since Ann Richards won the governorship in 1990 so although the state is trending back to them, to win it this time would be a remarkable achievement and O’Rourke’s result has to be seen in that context.

All the same, there are many losing candidates who run good campaigns. What makes him special? Firstly, sometimes it’s just being the right person in the right place at the right time against the right opponent. Catching the mood of the moment is something that can’t be planned, only captured, but he might have taken that chance – as his fundraising exploits have shown. Being a fresh face in a field of septugenarians also does no harm.

O’Rourke has also taken a deliberate choice to run a positive and optimistic campaign; something that stands in marked contrast to politics in general and Trump in particular. Trump might try to nickname him with something belittling – ‘the rookie’ or ‘the boy scout’ – but it’ll be hard to pin something as damaging as ‘crooked’ or ‘lying’ (though that won’t necessarily stop him from trying).

Which is where we come to a little history. The 1850s were another time of flux in America, when candidates from outside the usual circle had a better than usual chance is breaking through. One, in particular, did: a gangly lawyer from Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln was able to secure the Republican nomination in 1860 in part because his party was new and had yet to develop the full machine politics that was typical later; in part because he too had – unusually – achieved national prominence in a losing senatorial contest; and in part because as well as his own support, he was a transfer-friendly candidate. That matters as much in the days of primaries as when the convention was king.

None of which is to say that O’Rourke is a new Lincoln. It is to say, however, that Lincoln’s path to the White House is once again open. Does that make O’Rourke value at 25/1? I don’t think so. There are simply too many variables. We don’t know whether he has presidential ambitions for 2020 and while he’s run a good campaign in Texas, will that translate to the national stage? The senior members of the Democrat field are flawed and that certainly creates space for someone like O’Rourke (as in 1992, there was space for Bill Clinton to come through – though Clinton was an experienced Governor), but it also creates space for the likes of Harris and others.

In fact, the shortness of his odds is probably more a measure of the inadequacy of more prominent Democrats than of O’Rourke’s chances. I think the better strategy at this stage is to lay those front-runners.

David Herdson

* In one sense, Sanders didn’t actually come all that close. Hillary had a comfortable lead nationally during the early stages and though Sanders closed it through until about late April, when he was within a few percentage points, he could do nothing about those votes cast early on which were already in Hillary’s bag. In addition, the unpledged delegates were likely to go for the establishment candidate. However, Sanders came within a fraction of winning Iowa, did take New Hampshire and was close in a flawed Nevada contest. Had he won all three – and he could have – the national polls would likely have changed much more quickly. Further, the superdelegates might not have been so reliable for Hillary had Sanders gone into the convention with a lead in pledged delegates and votes cast.