Could O’Malley Really Do It? 5 Things He Needs to Win Iowa

Martin O’Malley returned to central Iowa this week for multiple events and meetings to test out his potential presidential bid, all the while a reported Hillary Clinton weekend launch looms with new imminence. When Clinton announces on Sunday it will suck up all the oxygen in the news media for weeks. She’ll probably raise more money in the first week she declares than O’Malley could hope to raise in months. And yet he persists.

Plenty of potential presidential candidates haven’t even dipped their toe in the water before peering into the pond and getting scared off by Clinton’s visage staring back at them from the watery depths. So is he crazy? Overly confident? Has all those years playing rock ‘n roll with his Irish rock band damaged his brain like our parents warned us? Or perhaps there’s something more to the man from Maryland that the national media and Democrats haven’t caught on to yet. Could he really have a shot – even a small one – at knocking off the party’s overwhelming favorite for the nomination? Let’s take a look at what O’Malley’s chances in Iowa really are.

Nowhere to Go But Up

O’Malley starts at or near the bottom of most early polling, garnering a mere 1% in some Iowa polls taken earlier this year, while his main rival, Clinton, is around 60%. He’s known only to the most-involved Democratic activists, and is just starting to get more national media attention. He’s now traveled to Iowa this year and last more than any other potential White House hopeful, hired one well-connected Iowan, and built up favors in 2014 by helping many Iowa Democrats’ campaigns with staff and money. The seeds of a legitimate caucus operation are there for O’Malley, but the specter of a massive Clinton campaign begs the question as to whether any of it will be enough.

After speaking to a number of Iowa activists and political professionals – and just using my own analysis on the topic – Starting Line does see a real opportunity for O’Malley in Iowa, if even just a slight one. It will require O’Malley to be both good and lucky. Here are the five things O’Malley needs to go his way in order to pull off an incredible upset of Hillary Clinton in the Iowa Caucus:

1. Quickly Become the Only Legitimate Alternative to Clinton

It’s going to be difficult enough to bring Hillary Clinton under 50% here, so O’Malley can’t afford a single other candidate shaving away 5% here or 8% there. The good news for him is that scenario looks like it’s coming close to fruition, far earlier than even I thought possible. Elizabeth Warren is not going to run (give it a break already, folks). I have serious doubts that Joe Biden will get in this summer or later. Bernie Sanders is such a wimp that he’s getting scared off by the thought of actually having to raise a little bit of money for a bid. And whether Jim Webb can put together a real campaign is still yet to be seen.

“There’s probably an opportunity for one,” says Kurt Meyer, the Democratic chair of a tri-county organization in northern Iowa. “There’s probably not an opportunity for two or three or four other candidates.” Meyer noted that once someone starts to get to 35% or 40% in the polls against Clinton, a real race could start to develop, one that the media would likely jump on and help perpetuate. Still, would that be enough in the end? “I don’t know that a person could win Iowa even if he or she were to come in and gather up all of the I’m-not-comfortable-with-Mrs.-Clinton vote. But there’s probably an opening there.”

2. Unite the Progressive Base and Anti-Hillary Crowd

If it shakes out that way, simply being the only alternative to Clinton won’t be enough. Because it’s not just liberals who dislike Clinton – there’s plenty of more moderate Democrats who are just tired of the Clinton family. If it were only Bernie Sanders and Clinton, Sanders might unify the progressive base, but there’d be plenty of anti-Clinton Democrats that would never caucus for the wild-haired socialist from Vermont. This is where O’Malley’s greatest strength lies: his progressive policy accomplishments and overall personality make him an ideal candidate to unite the various anti-Clinton factions.

On the progressive front, O’Malley should be able to start rallying the party’s left to his cause the more well-known his solidly-progressive record as Governor of Maryland and Mayor of Baltimore becomes. He raised the state’s minimum wage to $10.10, expanded the earned income tax credit, invested heavily in public schools, kept college tuition rates down, passed a Dream Act, had success on environmental issues, and expanded pre-K.

He’s already staking out the progressive mantle for 2016, calling for the restoration of Glass Steagall, opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade act, denouncing concentrated wealth, and slamming Wall Street. “I think a lot of people, including myself, are hungry for someone who’s more of a populist,” says Mike Carberry, a county supervisor from liberal Johnson County. “From what I’ve seen, I think Martin O’Malley is to the left of Hillary, so I would be very encouraged to take a closer, harder look at him.”

On the anti-Clinton front, his personality can appeal to practically any caucus-goer. In his speeches he projects the image of a strong leader, but still is down-to-earth enough that he can connect in smaller settings. He’s attractive, but not in an in-retrospect-creepy overly attractive way like John Edwards. And he plays the guitar at some of his events. That’s kinda neat.

Democrats in Iowa are already warming up to his approach. Pam Nystrom, a long-time activist in Boone County says she has many fellow involved Democratic friends “who find him to be intelligent, well-versed, articulate and he has a good history.” Earl Agan, the head of the Central Iowa Building Trades, leans toward O’Malley as his early favorite and says, “I like what he says and the way he carries and presents himself. I think he’s a fresh look for the Democratic Party.”

3. Run a Great Iowa Caucus Operation

O’Malley is already off to a great start on running a competent caucus campaign, and is clearly getting good advice (and taking it) from his team. He mingles with guests before his speeches. He takes plenty of questions at smaller events. He stays late with activists afterwards, even hanging out with Scott County Democrats at an Irish bar for a few hours after his speech. He holds smaller meetings with groups of activists during the day. He laid good groundwork in 2014, smartly sending money and staff to important Iowa Democrats’ races to build up favors and insider support.

“It will take a lot of work to get his name out and get people behind him,” says Nystrom, who sees potential support there in her county of Boone. “I think there are people out there that will work for him. It’s going to take a lot of grass-roots work.” The question is whether O’Malley will have enough money, resources and time to build up an organization that can beat Clinton’s on caucus night.

4. O’Malley Must Break Out as an Inspiring Candidate

The same reason he can appeal to all factions because he doesn’t piss anyone off from a pre-set reputation may also serve as a weakness. His record is great, his personality appealing, but there’s something I can’t quite put my finger on yet that’s lacking. If you requested a generic liberal governor out of central casting, Martin O’Malley might be who they send you. He did a great job leading Maryland, but what stands out about him that this man, this Martin O’Malley, absolutely must be the next President of the United States?

Count me as a bit of a skeptic, at least for right now, on some of the overwhelmingly-positive receptions O’Malley has been receiving in Iowa so far. Are those truly for O’Malley, or are some people simply excited that Democrats are finally getting some attention in Iowa? This is what was most interesting to me when I first saw O’Malley speak in person in Davenport: I’d read his speech before and thought it was decent, but nothing too special. O’Malley’s strong delivery knocked it out of the park, however. He was getting standing ovations for lines that barely piqued my interest when reading it. It’s entirely possible, of course, that I’m taking too cynical a look at it (and to be fair, Clinton’s most recent speeches have bored me much worse).

But when you really deconstruct it all, I feel like there needs to be a little more before people clearly envision him as the leader of the free world. It’s early, of course, so there’s still plenty of time for that. O’Malley is simply introducing himself right now. He’ll have many opportunities over the summer and fall to turn himself into a Elizabeth-Warren-like populist superstar or inspiring leader that excites Democrats nationwide and in Iowa.

5. Clinton Must Stumble Significantly

Clinton begins with huge advantages in the caucus state that upended her run last time, and it’s not just in the polls. A network of county coordinators, precinct captains and volunteers still exist, something it might take O’Malley’s operation the entire year to catch up to, if it’s even possible. True, Clinton received only 30% of the vote in 2008, but that was a six-way race with a once-in-a-generation candidate in Barack Obama and a candidate who connected well with Iowans before in John Edwards. You’ll hear from some people that Barack Obama started out unknown too, but that simply isn’t comparable to O’Malley’s case. Obama began 2007 polling between 15% and 20% in Iowa, only about 10 points back from Clinton and Edwards. O’Malley is down about 60.

Here is what should cause the greatest hesitation for those thinking O’Malley can win: Hillary Clinton has a huge pool of extra support that she can pull from and turn out to the caucus. If Clinton fears O’Malley could give her real trouble in Iowa, she could easily pour unlimited money into the state and literally put five field organizers in every single small, rural county. There are tons of female voters, young women in particular, who don’t typically caucus, but who are excited about the historic nature of Clinton’s candidacy. Even if O’Malley were to win over the vast majority of the regular caucus-going crowd, he simply couldn’t match what a well-run Clinton campaign could bring out. O’Malley needs turnout to be like 2004 or less, when it was about 124,000 for Democrats. If it’s like 2008, when nearly 250,000 showed up, I just don’t see how he has a chance.

It would take a lot for Clinton’s support to dwindle that significantly. However, Democrats everywhere already were shaking their heads over Clinton’s handling of the email issue back in March. It looked like some of the same bad habits were resurrecting themselves. But in recent stories previewing the new approach her campaign hopes to take, it sounds like they’ve learned some important lessons. It would likely take something absolutely huge, a massive scandal we’ve never heard about, to seriously knock Clinton off her game and provide an opening for O’Malley not to simply perform well, but to actually win Iowa.

Overall: A Chance Exists, But Dynamic Must Change

In the short term, Martin O’Malley absolutely has the ability to become the main serious alternative to Hillary Clinton. I can very easily see where O’Malley eventually gets into the 30% and more range in Iowa polls. At that point Democrats have at least a semblance of a race, something many thought wouldn’t even happen with Clinton in it. After that, you never know what can happen.

But in a way… you kind of do. In the long term, Clinton’s advantages are simply too many. Something has to change to give O’Malley the chance to actually win. He needs to break out nationally as an inspiring, one-of-a-kind leader, and Clinton needs to trip up very badly. O’Malley could run a perfect Iowa Caucus campaign, but if the overall dynamics do not change between now and caucus night, he still wouldn’t be able to defeat Clinton here.

Even if he wins Iowa, could he really beat Clinton nationwide? That’s a little above this Iowan’s pay grade, so I’ll let others opine on that. If nothing else, it says a lot about O’Malley’s character that he’s willing to face the Clinton juggernaut at a time when many other ambitious Democrats with a future have chickened out. Those other “leaders” wait on the sidelines, praying for a spot in Clinton’s cabinet while O’Malley boldly forges ahead with his populist vision for America. Iowans, Democrats and the national media shouldn’t sleep on O’Malley. No matter what his long-term chances are, he will likely surprise a lot of people in Iowa over the next several months.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 4/10/15

Photo by Greg Hauenstein. See more of his work at

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