What Didn’t Work: John Hickenlooper Bows Out

John Hickenlooper is giddy-uping back to Colorado after ending his presidential run today, though he has yet to decide if he’ll run for Senate. If he does, hopefully it’s a more successful venture than his White House bid, which just never really gained much traction.

This is a continuation in my series of post-exit analysis of the presidential candidates (see our Eric Swalwell one here).

Hickenlooper had a nice life story: a laid-off scientist who became a successful businessman later in life, then built up a track record of real accomplishments as mayor and governor. He could credibly brag that he had already accomplished many goals in Colorado that Democrats and progressives are talking about now. In years past, perhaps that strong executive background would have had more of an impact. In today’s weird Trump era, it hasn’t yet.

But Hickenlooper didn’t even make serious headway in Iowa, a place where personable candidates do well in the retail-heavy format.

I think you could see why in his stump speech. It was almost all biographical, all backward-looking and not enough of a big-picture vision for the future. Hickenlooper would spend around 20 minutes on his life journey, describing in-depth his time running a craft brewery operation. He left most of the policy discussion on what he’d do in the White House up to the Q&A section. Personality is important, and Hickenlooper was certainly one of the most fun candidates to grab a beer with, but it needs to be joined with something more.

What policies he did focus on in his moments on the national stage were mostly centered around what he was against. He set himself up as a foil for Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, which got him a little extra attention, but still didn’t give him the spark needed for any momentum. There was very little chance he’d qualify for the Fall debates.

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Many pundits and progressive activists may point to Hickenlooper’s early departure as proof that the more centrist message is a losing one in today’s Democratic Party. They may well be right. On the other hand, Hickenlooper, along with John Delaney, have also been successful in slowly shifting the debate to where the Medicare for All plans are receiving much more scrutiny and pushback. The end beneficiary of that, however, may simply be Joe Biden, not those doing the dirty work of lobbing those critiques. Even then, at least Delaney has pitched more of a clear vision of what his presidency would be about.

There were other difficulties, too: lackluster fundraising (it didn’t help that a fellow Coloradan was in the race), the fact that Hickenlooper was a white man in a party looking for more diversity, and a field that was just too damn big for lesser-known contenders to get a serious look from voters.

Finally, Hickenlooper’s candidacy was dead in the water the moment his major campaign shakeup occurred back in early July. He would later engage in too much speculation about the topic with reporters on the campaign trail, fueling additional headlines over whether he’d stay in the race. That must have made fundraising absolutely impossible — how do you convince someone to donate to your presidential bid when you’re signaling there’s a chance you might end it soon?

I don’t know enough about Colorado politics to predict how Hickenlooper’s Senate run will fare if he indeed chooses that path. Perhaps he’s so well-liked from his time as governor that he’ll have the advantage on Cory Gardner in a blue-trending state. But hopefully his message in that race will focus more on what he plans to do for the people, not just what he’s accomplished in the past.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 8/15/19

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