Though the first Democratic debates are nearly two months away, and the first actual contests won’t take place for more than nine months, some early patterns are beginning to develop in the party’s sprawling, unpredictable presidential race.
Even before declaring his candidacy, former Vice President Joe Biden has maintained his place as the leading establishment candidate, despite a run of negative stories. Sen. Bernie Sanders has solidified his position as the favorite of the party’s left wing. And Sen. Kamala Harris gained the support of a key black leader, Bakari Sellers, in South Carolina, where she hopes a large minority electorate will make her a major player before the race reaches her home state of California.
Among the others, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, both a bit harder-to-classify ideologically, seem to be competing for the role of leading “new face,” often the path to becoming a potent player in Democratic races. But the two are pursuing vastly different strategies.
O’Rourke, 46, is seeking to replicate his Texas 2018 Senate campaign in which he visited all 254 counties and came closer than any recent Democratic hopeful to breaking the quarter century Republican stranglehold on statewide offices. In the past month, his campaign says, he has visited 63 cities, driven 3,791 miles and taken 476 questions at town hall events from potential supporters.
Since his campaign began with a glowing interview in Vanity Fair magazine and a burst of news coverage, he has favored in-person events over cable news interviews and televised town halls. He told a questioner in Alexandria, Va., last week he finds answering questions at town meetings “more satisfying than being on cable TV.”
Buttigieg, meanwhile, is pursuing the opposite strategy. He is appearing on as many media outlets as possible, Matthew Yglesias wrote in Vox, prompting Politico’s Jack Shafer to conclude that, “Like Molly Bloom in his favorite novel, Ulysses, he can’t stop saying ‘yes’ — to media invitations.” A March appearance on an hour-long CNN Town Hall provided his first big boost, and multiple appearances have helped him hone precise answers for the forthcoming debates.
The exposure seems to be helping him. Recent national Morning Consult and Monmouth polls, plus a Gravis poll in Iowa and the Granite State Poll in New Hampshire all show him jumping into third place, behind the far better-known Biden and Sanders. He raised $7 million from 76,000 donors in the first three months, less than Sanders, Harris and O’Rourke but impressive for someone whose highest elective office has been mayor of a city of 102,000.
Unlike Buttigieg, O’Rourke’s poll standings have plateaued in the single digits, though he did raise $9.4 million from 218,000 donors.
The 37-year-old Buttigieg’s new celebrity was on display last week when he returned to Iowa, where he previously had drawn modest but friendly crowds. This time, more than 1,000 turned out for a Des Moines event that attracted national attention for the openly gay mayor’s succinct put-down of an anti-gay demonstrator.
Some Democrats and analysts are comparing him favorably with O’Rourke. Asked by Chuck Todd on MSNBC’s “Meet the Press Daily” if Buttigieg had started to “out-Beto” O’Rourke as the exciting, younger candidate, prominent liberal Democratic leader Markos Moulitsas declared the Texan had “become a complete non-entity” in the race, a judgment Todd challenged by noting “he’s got plenty of money” so “be careful there.”
“The Buttigieg boom has also benefited from the stumbles of our previous political shooting star, Beto O’Rourke,” wrote Politico’s Shafer. “The things that once seemed so appealing about O’Rourke to the press—the generalities, the platitudes, the offhanded charisma, the rolled-up sleeves—seem off-putting now.”
While Shafer’s conclusion seems a bit premature, his description seemed apt at O’Rourke’s Alexandria appearance, which climaxed a two-day, nine-stop trip through Virginia, a state overlooked so far though it votes March 3, along with Texas and California.
Though he attracted an enthusiastic crowd of more than 500, his basic pitch seemed not to have progressed much beyond his upbeat tone and an imprecise outline of issues positions — generally like those of his many rivals (though he avoided explicitly endorsing the Green New Deal or Medicare for all).
He sidestepped two questions seeking specificity.
Questioned “what you’re going to do to fix our broken immigration system,” he responded with his standard depiction of his home town of El Paso and its sister Mexican city, Ciudad Juarez, as models for dealing with border problems. When asked how he’ll differentiate himself from his rivals, he replied, “I will do nothing to diminish or demean or denigrate another Democratic candidate” but didn’t answer the question.
Buttigieg also was asked about his lack of specific policy proposals during a CNN Town Hall Monday night in New Hampshire, replying it’s more important now for Democrats to express their values than drown voters in “minutiae.” “Buttigieg has had a remarkable run,” cautioned CNN analyst David Axelrod afterwards. “But he’s going to have to turn the page now and get to the next act.”
Still, the former Obama adviser noted, the Democratic race has only reached Mile 2 of a 26-mile Marathon. Next year’s results will show if O’Rourke’s lower key, long-term approach was wiser than Buttigieg’s higher visibility immediacy.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.