BY TODD J. GILLMAN | THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS
SALEM, N.H. — Beto O’Rourke’s best days as a presidential candidate are already behind him. That could change, maybe soon. Ups and downs are typical in a campaign.
But for the El Paso, Texas, Democrat who captured the imagination of party activists across the land last fall, when he came within a nicely coiffed hair of ousting Sen. Ted Cruz, it’s been only down since he jumped onto his first coffee shop countertop in Iowa.
Seven weeks later, he’s sunk to 3 percent support, far below his peak, when memories of his near miss against Cruz were fresh. He’s held more town halls and taken more questions from voters than any rival, including those who’ve been stumping a year longer, and his poll numbers sink and sink.
It’s enough to make a candidate wonder if maybe less exposure might be the answer. Fewer events, maybe a change of tactics.
O’Rourke brims with optimism and boundless energy. On Thursday evening, he climbed atop a wooden box in a backyard overlooking a lake in Salem, N.H., and gamely, cheerily fielded questions from more than a hundred first-in-the-nation primary voters as the sun set behind him.
His wife, Amy, was at his side, making her first appearance with him outside Texas since he launched his campaign.
“Amy is here to console me,” he joked later, when asked how he keeps up his spirits despite flagging poll numbers.
“Look,” he said, “in the history of presidential politics and the primary in New Hampshire, there are a series of peaks and valleys for almost every major party candidate. Few have cruised without difficulty into victory. And so this is going to take time. Some days are going to be tougher than others.”
The first debate is nearly two months away, the first votes eight months after that, and with millions in the bank from the initial burst of excitement, he can keep plugging away for a long time.
“I really feel very good about things and feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing at this moment,” he said.
Sinking poll numbers
Even so, in the last month, O’Rourke hasn’t gone above 6 percent in any national poll. Two recent polls had him at 3 percent.
A CNN poll released last week offered a rare bit of good news. Unlike surveys assessing the horserace for the nomination, this one tested Democratic contenders individually against President Donald Trump. O’Rourke topped the president by a 10-point margin — the best in the field. Biden and Sanders came out ahead by 6 percentage points.
But the immediate challenge is to survive the primaries, and for O’Rourke, the news is grim in key early states.
A Monmouth University poll released Thursday showed that in New Hampshire, O’Rourke is barely registering. His 2 percent support puts him far behind former Vice President Joe Biden, who holds a huge lead with 36 percent, twice as much as Sen. Bernie Sanders. The Texan also lags Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.He’s tied for sixth place with Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
The three Bs topped the polls in December, with Biden far ahead and O’Rourke nipping at Sanders’ heels. Hardly anyone else registered as more than a blip. But O’Rourke would soon slip as others jumped in and he wrestled with whether to run.
When O’Rourke did launch, in mid-March, he launched strong.
A Quinnipiac University survey conducted the next week showed him bouncing back to third place with a solid 12 percent, behind Sanders at 19 percent and Biden at 29 percent. Sen. Kamala Harris drew 8 percent, and no one else even broke the 4 percent mark.
That was then.
“He’s got a long haul,” said one of the Democratic activists who came out to see O’Rourke in Salem, Dr. Andreas Athanasiou, 73, a pediatric oncologist. “It’s going to be very, very tough for him.”
But he was impressed with how O’Rourke handled himself in the Senate race, and can’t think of another Democrat better positioned to beat Trump. “The reason is the Big T — Texas. He’s got a good chance to win Texas, and then it’s curtains for the Republicans.”
“Too bad Beto is still considered a dark horse,” he said. “Democrats have a good bet with Beto but they don’t know it yet.”
Other Democratic voters scoping out the 2020 prospects also call it premature to write off O’Rourke, or for the Texan himself to fret about losing momentum.
“He has a lot of energy,” said Caryn Noonan, 53, a high school administrative assistant who lives in Hudson, N.H.
She backed Sanders in 2016 but won’t do that again, saying: “I don’t think he can win.” Biden, she said, “seems like a very nice man. He’s certainly the adult in the room.”
She saw O’Rourke just a few weeks ago in Nashua and liked him so much, she came out to see him again in Salem on Thursday, at the home of Jim Smith, ambassador to Saudi Arabia during President Barack Obama’s first term, and his wife, Janet Breslin, leader of the local Democratic Party.
“He pretty much has endless energy. He doesn’t seem to be thrown off by too much. … He’ll ebb and flow,” she said, echoing the idea that O’Rourke shouldn’t be worried that the initial buzz has worn off.
O’Rourke is outwardly unfazed.
“The fundamentals remain the same. It’s connecting with people and listening to them, and bringing their stories and their perspective into the conversation and the campaign,” he said.
Dipping to 3 percent doesn’t seem to rattle him. At least, he’s able to tune it out and avoid letting any gnawing doubts creep into the Q&A sessions he holds with voters several times a day. His latest New Hampshire swing includes eight such events from Thursday evening through Saturday afternoon.
“There are so many stories being written about the 2020 elections and the nomination process. And it is so difficult to find the signal for the noise,” he said. “I really can’t get distracted about what’s happening in the short term. We’re playing for the long term, the largo plazo.”
Meanwhile, he’s been assembling a team far stronger than doubters expected in those months he stayed on the sidelines, losing the chance to nab some top talent to others who jumped in quicker.
On Thursday he hired Jeff Berman to oversee his delegate strategy. Berman isn’t a household name, but he worked as national delegate director for Barack Obama in 2008, a campaign that broke ground in the strategic approach to collecting delegates. He served as a senior consultant to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
O’Rourke touted the hire as part of the team he’s assembling, starting with campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon, Obama’s deputy campaign manager in 2012.
“As far as emulating his campaign, insofar as he won in 2008, in 2012, I want to emulate the heck out of that,” O’Rourke said. “And the fact that there are some extraordinary veterans of those campaigns who have chosen to work with us, just makes us so much stronger.”