He hasn’t broken into the double-digits in state or national polls.
He failed to ignite a spark after the first national Democratic debate or Iowa’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner.
He has yet to dominate a news cycle in the national media.
But Martin O’Malley is holding his own in the fight for the nomination, and he should not be discounted out of the race just yet.
“We are positioned better than any candidate in this race to beat expectations,” said O’Malley’s Iowa state director Jake Oeth in a conversation this week with Starting Line about their next steps.
O’Malley and his staff are well-aware they are fighting a tough fight – the former Maryland governor even includes a line about it in nearly all of his speeches on the campaign trail. But over this past weekend, Starting Line observed a slight shift in O’Malley’s approach while interacting with Iowans: he turned his “tough fight” situation into an uplifting, identifiable point.
“I believe the toughness of the fight is a way perhaps that the hidden God has a way of telling us we are actually fighting for something worth saving,” said O’Malley to a room full of Linn County Democrats in Cedar Rapids on Saturday night. “The American Dream is worth saving. Our children’s future is worth saving. And our country is worth saving. I am in this to win this and I intend to succeed.”
O’Malley has been campaigning in Iowa nearly every-other weekend since he announced in late May, and it’s only been in the past few weeks that his name has caught on to caucus-goers. Thanks to time on the debate stage and space on national talk shows, his name is in the mix of considerations for many Iowans – they are paying attention to O’Malley and no longer see him as much of a long-shot candidate. Though some voters have already made up their minds on who they want to win on caucus night, a majority of them Startling Line talked to this weekend say that they are keeping an eye on O’Malley and would happily vote for him.
“You know, he’s got honesty, energy, and he’s a fresh face,” says Bill Thele of Burlington, a Bernie Sanders supporter who came out to hear O’Malley at the Des Moines County Democrats Fundraiser over the weekend. “I’d be happy voting for O’Malley. He and Bernie have the same position on issues, but Bernie has more of the fire, honestly.”
Richard Haerr and Sallee Garst-Haerr followed O’Malley to two stops on Saturday, one in Burlington and the other 40 minutes away in Wapello. Garst-Haerr says they traveled to Wapello for a house party because she wanted to hear O’Malley in a more intimate setting.
“He’s got new leadership and I like that,” said Garst-Haerr. “I agree with everything he says. I’m not deterred by his polling status. I’m waiting for others to see what I see.”
Garst-Haerr’s husband, a Hillary Clinton fan, says though he wants to see a woman be president and believes Clinton is a stronger candidate than O’Malley, he admits that “the difference is very small between O’Malley and Clinton.”
“I’d vote for him,” says Haerr. “Gotta keep things in the house on an even keel anyway.”
It’s conversations like these that point to the argument that O’Malley should not be forgotten, and that in many ways, his campaign has just begun. He’s beginning to draw more contrasts between himself and the other two candidates, and though that has not necessarily ignited the flame in voters to move to his side of the table, at least national media outlets are noticing the attacks.
“I’m a Democrat,” said O’Malley in an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow in front of a large South Carolina crowd last week. “I’m a lifelong Democrat. I’m not an independent. I’m not a former Republican. I believe in the party of Franklin Roosevelt.”
And O’Malley needs to keep reminding voters and national pundits the differences between himself and Clinton and Sanders. On many core Democratic issues, the three of them share similar if not identical views, so it’s easy for voters to forget O’Malley. His campaign team says he’s going to be hitting hard on Clinton and Sanders’ immigration, gun safety, and Wall Street policies in the coming weeks to set himself apart from the pack, and while that may be easy for political writers to craft stories about in the national media, policy differences don’t necessarily win over voters, especially not this cycle. It’s personality and electability that O’Malley should be drawing contrasts between himself and the other two candidates.
Sure, Bernie Sanders has the quirky charm of an outspoken college professor that is catching the attention of young people and older liberals, but his general election viability is likely nothing compared to that of O’Malley or Clinton, and O’Malley needs to remind voters of this while on the caucus campaign trail. In 2004 John Kerry made a powerful and effective closing pitch to caucus-goers swooning over a similar insurgent candidate, Howard Dean, telling them at the 2003 Jefferson Jackson Dinner, “Don’t just send them a message. Send them a president.” O’Malley could make a similar argument with Sanders to the progressive left.
That might be an important, persuasive argument on caucus night, one that O’Malley’s supporters around the state are well-organized to deliver.
“We’ve built up a good grassroots network of volunteers…to go into that room on February 1st, stand in their corner, and stick up for the governor,” says Oeth.
And it’s that grassroots organization that is essential if or when the governor catches fire. O’Malley has well-organized campaign in Iowa, now with 33 staff overall (they recently added new ones, defying those who worry whether he may run out of money). It’s a necessary part of the campaign cycle, and can either sustain or ruin a candidate’s wave of enthusiasm. Case in point: Republican Carly Fiorina, who failed to capitalize on the buzz of support after her strong performance in the second debate because she simply did not have the infrastructure set up in Iowa.
“We’ve put together the organization to be successful,” says Iowa Communications Director Kristin Sosanie. “So now the governor has introduced himself and people know who he is…and once he continues to win over people, we have the groundwork to actually capitalize and organize for the caucus campaign.”
O’Malley could conceivably chip away Sanders’s armor of support and enthusiasm, but how can he beat Clinton and her overwhelming built-in advantages? One word: sincerity.
For months, O’Malley has been working the living rooms of every-day Iowans far more than any other candidate in the race on either side of the ticket. He excels in these smaller formats with his charming personality and honest, sincere demeanor when addressing voters’ concerns. In a tiny living room of a Latino family in Wapello over the weekend, O’Malley channeled his compassionate side with a line not heard often on the campaign trail.
“We’re not going to solve our country’s problems by spending the next four years debating the pros and cons of socialism, or by declaring that all Republicans are our enemies,” said O’Malley. “Republicans are not our enemies. They are our neighbors, they are our uncles, they are our colleagues at work. We’re all in this together. And this eagle of ours called the United States actually flies a lot better when both wings are working.”
It’s those moments with his soft-spoken words and identifiable ideas that could sway Iowa caucus-goers in the coming months. Clinton can work a room as well, and Sanders can fire up a crowd of young college students on any given night, but O’Malley’s even-keeled approach could become more attractive as voters become more serious in selecting a candidate.
As O’Malley told the crowd in Cedar Rapids over the weekend, he understands Iowa caucus politics probably better than most candidates, having worked on campaigns here in his youth (Gary Hart in 1984), and stumped for candidates in the past few years, and he knows “it’s not yet decision time.” Hart didn’t see his surge until the final month before the caucus, and it’s possible that this is O’Malley’s mindset now, that he has plenty of time. Reality likely a different matter. The Democratic debate held in Des Moines this Saturday provides him one of the few remaining chances to make a splash and shake up the dynamics of the stage. But O’Malley is trusting of the Iowa caucus-goer.
“I know the people of Iowa always make up their own mind,” said O’Malley. “And I know that the results of the Iowa caucus never look anything like what the polls look like in November.”
It’ll be interesting to see if the sharper contrasts O’Malley is rolling out on the campaign trail will work effectively in the debate. If not, the promising candidate may simply be holding on to something that is out of his grasp this election cycle.
by Pat Rynard