There are two candidates the betting markets liked at the start of the year who fell far short of expectations. One is Kamala Harris. The other is the now departed Beto. It’s customary at a time like this to wonder what went wrong. Where the candidate stumbled. When did he lose his nomination chance?
But Robert Francis O’Rourke never had a chance in 2019-2020. Those of us (and I was fooled too) who thought he was a legit contender saw a taller, updated version of RFK, who raised damn near $100 million for his 2018 race against Ted Cruz. Money and media are always important and it seemed like Beto had both.
Turns out, he had neither. After raking in over $6 million on day one, the well ran dry. Competing to defeat a national politician hated by Democrats in a Senate race is hugely motivating. Dueling with many other candidates with high favorability ratings in the party is not.
Same goes for the media. The Cruz-Beto race was compelling. Along with Andrew Gillum in Florida and Stacy Abrams in Georgia, he was one of three upstart Democrats trying to flip a red or purple office. But they also only needed to cover these contests for a few months. A presidential candidate needs to keep the media fed for well over a year.
And Beto’s shoestring campaign was ill suited to feed said media. He lacked the communications infrastructure, the availability for media hits, and the sort of events that easily lead themselves to coverage. While he did his thing, others like Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren got their attention.
In retrospect, it’s crystal clear Beto was 80% propelled by anti-Cruz sentiment, and at best 20% advanced by actual political acumen and candidate skill. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen talking about Dan Quayle, son, you’re no Bobby Kennedy.
From a remove of fifty plus years, it’s easy to fixate on RFK’s style. The rolled up sleeves, standing on boxes and chairs in front of a crowd, hanging out of an open car, etc. Beto mimicked this style very effectively. He shares Kennedy’s connection with Latino voters. As bad as his polling was, O’Rourke did register better with this key demographic group.
In his day, RFK had plenty of detractors. Many of whom felt he was too ambitious and moved too quickly without the necessary qualifications. Beto was accused of entitlement and white privilege, Kennedy surfed through his career on a wave of nepotism.
But the comparisons break down when you look at the substance. Regardless of how he got there, Kennedy served a full term as Attorney General, in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. He got the call when James Meredith was denied entry to Ole Miss. Throughout his tenure, he found himself needing to deal with entrenched Southern Democrats and respond to MLK, all while attempting to protect his brother’s presidency.
Then there was his integral role during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His blood rivalry with LBJ. A surprisingly tough race for a Senate seat representing New York in 1964. The tough decision on whether to primary LBJ. And along the way, his brother was murdered. Also he was getting blackmailed by J. Edgar Hoover.
There are ten or fifty biographies out there to remind us Bobby was no saint. Who knows what happened with him and Marilyn Monroe, or to what extent his efforts to remove Fidel Castro could have rebounded on his brother. But he was as battle-tested as it’s possible for a candidate in his early 40s to be.
RFK ran JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign, one that was one of the best organized in history. While Beto began his run seemingly clueless about the necessary components, Bobby had already done this before. It’s as though Karl Rove or David Axelrod were suddenly a charismatic candidate with a famous name, running on the memory of a martyred brother.
And even with all of that, Kennedy was no sure bet to get nominated in 1968. This presidential stuff is hard. His victory in the California primary the night he was shot probably did push him safely ahead of Gene McCarthy. But Hubert Humphrey was waiting at the convention, and LBJ was firmly opposed to a Kennedy nomination and controlling the levers.
Had he surmounted that obstacle, it’s similarly not safe to assume Bobby would have defeated Richard Nixon. Beyond all of that, RFK never faced the sort of field Beto was up against. If you figure Joe Biden is the stand-in for Humphrey, and Bernie Sanders for McCarthy, O’Rourke still had to worry about Harris, Buttigieg, Warren, and countless others.
Looking back, a candidate without enough heft, and with way less than enough preparation, waded into a very full pond, with expectations well in excess of his ability to deliver. It was correct to think a candidate who lacked the traditional qualifications of having served as vice president, a governor, or senator, could make a dent in the nomination battle.
A ton of candidates thought this was possible. Most of them are now gone. But Buttigieg isn’t. He became the candidate many thought Beto was. The odds are still against him, but his run is now fully legit. He’s got money and big support in Iowa.
Democrats often do gravitate to a new and exciting younger candidate. But those successes are rarely something that looks like a previous model. Even if Buttigieg shares RFK’s modest stature, aversion to suit jackets, and sleeve rolling, he’s cast himself in a new way. Even if not as tested as Kennedy back in the day, he is more grounded in difficult experiences than Beto.
He has a different constituency so far. Buttigieg definitely hasn’t inherited RFK’s rapport with the African American community, and while not doing terribly with Latino voters, it’s not a strength. More evidence that while failed candidates have many similarities, successful ones are never exactly the same.
If an exciting new presidential candidate reminds you too closely of a specific previously successful or revered candidate, take a few beats before you start placing any bets on them. Odds are, the similarities are obscuring some crucial differences.