Not too long ago, it seemed then-Congressman Beto O’Rourke (D–TX) was all that was talked about in Texas politics. Indeed, O’Rourke—and his blistering campaign against Ted Cruz for the U.S. Senate—became the infatuation of the progressive left, both in Texas and across the country. This burgeoning popularity gave rise to the “Beto phenomenon” of 2018 and propelled O’Rourke to millions of dollars in fundraising and a very close finish in the election, losing by a mere three points to Cruz.
But fast-forward to the present day, and the story is very different. “Beto” is no longer “Senate candidate O’Rourke,” but rather “presidential candidate O’Rourke”—encouraged to seek the 2020 nomination by many high-level Democrats, including former Obama aides. Yet, unlike his senatorial race just over a year ago, the “Beto phenomenon” does not seem to be catching on from a nationwide perspective.
The reality is striking: Presidential candidate O’Rourke has neither the pull nor the popularity he had a year ago.
The poll numbers speak for themselves, especially when recalling that O’Rourke received 48 percent of the statewide vote in 2018. Now in a historically crowded Democrat primary field, O’Rourke is struggling to find a foothold—a small fish in a very big Democrat pond. In a group headlined by heavy hitters like former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT), and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA), O’Rourke has become all but negligible. According to the latest averages, he is receiving only 2.5 percent of support among Democrat primary voters.
Yet O’Rourke still appears to be maintaining popularity in Texas, where he hovers near 20 percent support in his home state, placing him firmly in second place behind Biden. Texas Democrats, at least nominally, still appear to support O’Rourke, while the national crowd seems to think otherwise.
So why is O’Rourke, the sweetheart of the Texas left, floundering on the national stage?
The most obvious culprit is name recognition. Popular as he may be in Texas, Beto O’Rourke simply does not have the national notoriety of Biden or Sanders, and he has no history in the national spotlight. Likewise, his meager six years in Congress pale in comparison to the front-runners’ decades of experience.
O’Rourke is also struggling with fundraising and is now drastically behind his Democrat counterparts in campaign resources. For perspective, O’Rourke has raised an estimated $9.3 million in the race, while leaders like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are nearing the $40 million mark. O’Rourke’s fundraising juggernaut of 2018 no longer exists today. The crowded Democrat field means there are simply too many mouths to feed.
And with other young rising stars like South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg joining the entrenched front-runners, it appears that O’Rourke is fading fast.
While issues with name recognition and fundraising seem like obvious problems, perhaps the greater issue lies within the identity of the candidate himself. O’Rourke, much like the reinvigorated progressive base in Texas, is a young charismatic character who is more adept at giving off “good vibes” and liberal platitudes than tangible policy positions. He is known for his emotional appeal—something that wowed young Texas progressives in 2018 but seems to be unpopular among a national Democratic base looking for someone more substantive to unseat President Donald Trump in 2020.
The Democrat population in Texas is much like O’Rourke himself—young, emotional, progressive, and more obsessed with feelings than hard policy—and their presence has certainly made Texas look a little bluer. But in a national Democrat party appearing to lean towards establishment bets like Biden, Sanders, and Warren, Beto’s brand seems to be the odd one out.
Perhaps, therefore, it is Beto’s presentation—the factor that brought him so much popularity in Texas—that is causing him to flounder on the national stage. Maybe “good vibes” are not people’s primary concern when choosing a leader, much less a presidential nominee.
Beto O’Rourke is a charismatic campaigner and, without a doubt, a hard worker; he would not have enjoyed such success in 2018 otherwise. His achievements in Texas should be noted, even taken as a warning to Texas conservatives of the new and growing progressive demographic they must now mobilize against. But on the national stage, his fall into irrelevance is not only understandable, but it’s expected.