Tonight’s long-awaited first Democratic debate could serve as a pivotal moment in the fight for the nomination, and no one has more on the line than Martin O’Malley. After agitating for months for more debate opportunities, the first one has finally arrived for the little-known former Maryland Governor, his big opportunity to be seen by millions of Democrats. A good night for O’Malley could help him be seen as a legitimate contender by Democratic primary-goers; a bad night could spell the beginning of the end for his underdog campaign.
O’Malley’s inability to rise above a few percentage points in any nationwide or early state poll has perplexed many activists and members of the media. I think I understand why he hasn’t, though. For one, despite all his efforts, he’s garnered essentially no national press while the Trump circus, Clinton’s email saga and whatever crazy thing some Republican candidate says dominates every single news cycle. So unless you’ve seen him in person in Iowa, you probably don’t know much about him.
The larger problem for O’Malley is this: in a year of big personalities, he can too often come off simply as a “generic liberal governor” who plays the guitar. Part of that adds to his media problems – he’s making a very sensible, logical argument to be the party’s nominee, but seems to lack that extra dynamic thing that could help him cut through the news clutter. He’s handily the field’s best orator – but again, that only ever gets seen in person at early state events.
And his messaging that he’s the one who’s actually accomplished things because of his executive experience may convince some when comparing him to Sanders, but is a dubious comparison to make to former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Not much of his pitch has changed from when he announced, aside from adding in lots of extra details to his policy positions. He’s won a moral victory in convincing most of the party that more debates are necessary, but it’s so far failed to actually produce additional debates, and it didn’t really do much to convince voters to back him.
The biggest advantage he potentially holds over Clinton and Sanders he has only hinted at while on the campaign trail – his electability. Even though Clinton is finally getting some relief from the email controversy and Kevin McCarthy undermined the Benghazi committee attacks, many Democrats still worry whether she simply has too much baggage for the general election. And Sanders in recent interviews this weekend again labeled himself as a “Democratic Socialist,” something that plenty believe is a no-go for the general.
O’Malley should be the obvious beneficiary from these hesitations. But he doesn’t have the luxury at this point to simply wait for Democratic voters to come to this conclusion on their own. He needs to make this case explicit and force that narrative into the media.
In a number of news stories, it’s been hinted that O’Malley will use this first debate to introduce himself and his record to the audience, rather than go forcefully on the attack. That seems like a dangerously cautious strategy for a candidate who needs to break out now. The vast majority of the voters tuning in don’t know that O’Malley is the only non-Clinton or Sanders candidate who is running a legitimate campaign and has even half a shot at this thing. If Jim Webb comes off feisty or impressive, he could needlessly steal the spotlight from someone with actual potential in the race. O’Malley may need to help the viewers realize he’s the real alternative in this race.
Hopefully for O’Malley’s sake, he’ll turn in a stellar performance that finally brings serious attention to his legitimate campaign. It would certainly make the race more interesting. And he’s more than earned the chance this year as the hardest-working candidate with serious policy positions, backed up with a charismatic persona.
Of course, none of that may matter if Joe Biden jumps in the race in the next few days or weeks. If that happens, it’s difficult to see a path for O’Malley, great debate performance or not.
by Pat Rynard