February 4, 2016
Many reasonably successful politicians do a total face plant while running for president. Martin O’Malley isn’t the first (or hundredth) and won’t be the last. In 1980, Bob Dole was the most recent GOP VP nominee. He finished eighth in Iowa. The same year, John Connally spent $10 million to win one delegate.
O’Malley had limited name recognition. In 1984, John Glenn, Ohio Senator and early hero of the space program did not. No matter. He became a footnote. John Kasich is struggling for traction this year. That’s an improvement. In the 2000 cycle, he was out before 1999 was over. The list is endless.
Every round has a Martin O’Malley, someone who underperforms limited expectations. The unique part is finishing such a distant third. Most of the Asterisk Squad faced several competitors. It’s hard to get traction when you have several better known, better funded or better messaged opponents.
He had two. Others, like Rick Perry, make actual mistakes. They screw up a debate, say the wrong controversial thing. There are strategic or tactical fumbles. Joe Biden was sailing along in 1987 until an opposing operative sent tape to the media showing the future VP plagiarizing British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock.
Not Martin’s issue. Nobody remembers anything he said or did during the campaign. His failure to register in the middle of such a small field is historically unprecedented. Sure, Hillary Clinton is famous and locked down billions of endorsements. Bernie Sanders has a quirky appeal and is raising small donations at an unprecedented pace. There was still room for a third.
Back in ’84, O’Malley volunteered on the insurgent Gary Hart campaign. It was a formative experience for the then-college student. Originally overlooked behind the aforementioned Glenn and ex-VP Walter Mondale, Hart won the expectations game in Iowa with a 16% share.
Mondale did three times as well, but Hart was the story. He stormed out of the Hawkeye State and won New Hampshire. The race was on. Mondale ultimately triumphed, but Hart made him sweat to the finish line. Before extracurricular activities sunk him in 1987, he was the front runner for the 1988 nomination.
This was O’Malley’s model (at least the 1984 part of it). Hart was a senator instead of a governor, but of a similar age. Hillary is a Mondale-like uninspiring establishment choice. He had reason to think Bernie would have served as a strong niche candidate at best, more like Jesse Jackson did.
Jackson’s presence made it hard for Hart to win minority votes. O’Malley governed Maryland and mayored (probably not a word) Baltimore. Unlike the Coloradan Hart, he has plenty of practice winning minority (especially African-American) votes.
You can see how the wheels turned in O’Malley’s cranium. The path from underfunded, under-known, underdog to legit contender. Only one big problem. He tried running as Gary Hart. At the time, he was a hugely appealing candidate, at least to a large segment of the Democratic primary audience.
He was new and fresh, an updated JFK for the 80s. Not a New Deal liberal like Mondale, a black urban activist like Jackson, or a Southern born-again moderate like Jimmy Carter, Hart offered different policies, different proposals. He was half way between a liberal/progressive and the New Democrat Bill Clinton would run as in 1992.
O’Malley tried to balance himself between Hillary and Sanders. Even after she bolted left to cover her flank, this wasn’t a bad idea. However, the modern equivalent to the voting base that flocked to Hart prefers Sanders. They find him refreshing and authentic, O’Malley anonymous.
Boomers thought Hart was neat. Millennials don’t want their parents’ candidate. Hart didn’t try running as Adlai Stevenson. The same 32 years passed between Stevenson’s first run and Hart’s. The voter type was similar, but Hart updated himself for a new generation. O’Malley didn’t.
After JFK, Adlai wasn’t going to cut it. After Obama, Hart 2.0 isn’t appealing. You can’t repeat something that succeeded because it was new and exciting and hope to have voters find you new and exciting. O’Malley is an inferior version of an old template.
Bernie’s political hero is Eugene V. Debs, a frequent Socialist Party candidate for president 100+ years ago. Nobody alive remembers voting for him. Sanders is nothing like anything most of his voters have ever seen before.
Perhaps in another couple/few/several decades ’84 Hart will wear as well as the Bern is now.
To see what I thought about O’Malley’s chances back in September, click here.