by David Byler, The Washington Post
Every Democratic presidential candidate will, implicitly or explicitly, make the case that he or she is “electable.” Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar will talk about their appeal to working-class white voters in the Midwest. Kamala D. Harris, Cory Booker and Julián Castro will likely argue that they will turn out nonwhite and well-educated white voters and beat President Trump by going around (rather than through) his coalition. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders will argue that their policy ideas will excite the left and pull new voters into the process.
But nobody else’s case for his candidacy relies on the promise of electability as much as that of Beto O’Rourke. O’Rourke, unlike Biden and Klobuchar, doesn’t have a long record in statewide or national office. Castro, Booker, Harris and Pete Buttigieg can all claim to represent factions of an increasingly diverse Democratic Party, and Booker and Harris both beat O’Rourke on experience. Sanders has both a long record in Washington and a dedicated fan base. Warren has carved out a space as the Big Ideas Candidate.
O’Rourke has none of these advantages. He’s a straight white man with six relatively undistinguished years of experience in the House and a liberal, but not unique, platform. His real selling point is the idea that he’s more “electable” than the other Democratic candidates. That is, O’Rourke’s backers probably believe that he would have a better chance of beating Trump than most, or maybe any, of his Democratic competitors.
O’Rourke’s electability claim is far from baseless. His fundraising numbers from 2018 (and 2019) were good. And he got close to winning a Senate race in deep-red Texas.
But context matters, too. O’Rourke’s margin in that Senate election looks less impressive when it’s compared with that of other Texas Democrats who ran for office in 2018. And his demographic appeal was narrower than many think.
O’Rourke genuinely did perform well in 2018. After Trump won Texas by nine points in 2016, O’Rourke held Ted Cruz to a less than three-point margin of victory, a significant feat given the state’s political inclinations. O’Rourke also posted impressive fundraising numbers both in his Senate race and in theearly days of his presidential campaign. His ability to raise money might not be directly relevant in the presidential campaign. Voters from both major parties, regardless of whom they nominate, will give their nominee a lot of money. But these fundraising numbers might tell us something positive about O’Rourke’s ability to generate grass-roots enthusiasm.
Other data points undercut some of O’Rourke’s electability claims. As others have noted, O’Rourke wasn’t the only Texas Democrat to post a strong margin in 2018. Mike Collier, the Democratic lieutenant governor candidate, wasn’t the national phenomenon that O’Rourke was, but he managed to lose by only five points. O’Rourke also beat the median Democratic House challenger (those running against Republican incumbents) by about four points, according to CNN’s Harry Enten. In other words, O’Rourke was a stronger candidate than other Texas Democrats, but not by an enormous margin.
There’s always a chicken-and-egg problem with these sorts of statistics. It’s possible that O’Rourke was, like the other Democrats who performed surprisingly well, riding an anti-Trump wave that had little to do with his particular level of political skill. It’s also possible that other Democrats rode O’Rourke’s coattails and that a weaker Democratic Senate candidate would have dragged the rest of the state party down.
The evidence suggests that both stories are partially true. Trump’s low approval rating and the long-running urbanization and suburbanization of the Democratic Party were bound to help Democrats make gains in a state with so many big cities. But O’Rourke did outperform other Democrats by a bit and probably moved the needle somewhat. This means that O’Rourke’s electability claims aren’t baseless, but they’re probably not as strong as his ardent fans believe.
And O’Rourke might not be the most electable with the demographic groups that Democrats want to win back. Detailed maps of the 2018 Senate race show that O’Rourke shined in Austin and suburban Dallas, but his margins in the rural parts of Texas and his vote totals (compared with Hillary Clinton’s) on the racially diverse southern border were less impressive. O’Rourke tended to perform especially well in relatively white, suburban-ish districts — suggesting that part of his strength might be from artsy hipsters in Austin, but part might be from white-collar moms and dads who think Trump and his allies, among them Cruz, should be driven out of office.
So if you’re a Democrat who thinks the path to victory runs through the suburbs, O’Rourke might be your candidate. But if you believe that the party already has those voters in the bag and should focus on winning back working-class white voters, then Klobuchar or Biden might be a better fit. Similarly, if you believe that Democrats need to return to Obama-era levels of black turnout or convert the small but solid chunk of Hispanic Republicans, then Castro, Booker or Harris might be a better bet than O’Rourke.
None of this is to say that O’Rourke is a bad or even average candidate. Throughout his Senate campaign, he showed that he has some gut-level understanding of politics and an ability to create viral moments as well as raise money. Democrats also really want to beat Trump, so “I’m electable” is far from the worst pitch that a candidate could come up with.
But electability is one of O’Rourke’s only pitches. And that’s a problem. There are other electable candidates who can also claim experience, a unique policy perspective or the ability to represent historically underrepresented people. O’Rourke just has electability, and this data suggests that he might have less of it than people think.
David Byler is a data analyst and political columnist focusing on elections, polling, demographics and statistics. He joined The Washington Post in 2019. Follow David