POLITICS

Beto O'Rourke's Non-Media Strategy

The Texas Democrat is betting that interacting with voters face-to-face rather than via television can propel him to the Democratic presidential nomination.

More than seven weeks after announcing his campaign for president in 2020, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke has visited 12 states and the District of Columbia, held 103 events in 81 cities, and answered 594 questions from voters, per his campaign.

But he hasn’t held a single nationally televised town hall, a medium some argue is a more effective way of reaching voters across the country. The unconventional campaign strategy ― one he initially employed during his unsuccessful bid for Senate in Texas last year ― has even left some supporters scratching their heads.

“I haven’t seen you on MSNBC recently,” a woman told O’Rourke as he took questions at a campaign event in Alexandria, Virginia, last week. “I haven’t seen you on TV. Other candidates have been on the airwaves morning, noon and night. And that’s of concern to me.”

She also offered a suggestion: “The primary is a race. At some point, you’re going to have to distinguish yourself from the other people running.”

O’Rourke responded by saying he preferred interacting with voters “eyeball to eyeball” rather than by doing TV, as evidenced by his dozens of events where he regularly takes questions from the audience and reporters alike. But he acknowledged “at some point, I may have to give in” to doing cable television.

Five rival presidential candidates held hourlong town halls on CNN on Monday evening, making news and winning applause on issues like whether to begin impeachment proceedings of President Donald Trump, student loan relief and whether convicted felons should be given the right to vote. O’Rourke wasn’t one of them. 

Some supporters have noticed online, as well.

The Texas Democrat doesn’t appear to be changing up his strategy, either. According to his campaign, the candidate is scheduled to hold grassroots events in Nevada and California this week. His team also touted the fact that he’s “personally driven 4,044 miles” in a van across the country to meet voters ― with more road trips to come.

“With such a large field of qualified candidates, we believe that this is going to be won on the ground, which is why we’re not only investing our time to be in communities but we’re already organizing in all 50 states,” O’Rourke spokesman Chris Evans said in a statement, emphasizing that the candidate takes questions from local and national reporters several times a day.

It remains to be seen whether his plan can work, however. His rock star status among Democratic voters seems to have waned somewhat in recent weeks as other candidates have entered the race. Rivals have dominated headlines by either rolling out specific policy proposals or simply flooding the airwaves with appearances on radio and cable networks ― even places like Fox News. O’Rourke has not done either.

“If it were me, I would definitely do CNN town halls — they have been great,” CNN contributor and Democratic strategist Paul Begala said. “But this is a very long road and each candidate has to develop their own media signature. Beto is not foreclosing any options by beginning his presidential campaign the way he did his Senate campaign.”

O’Rourke came in sixth in a Monmouth University national poll of Democratic voters released Tuesday, behind former Vice President Joe Biden; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.); South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Buttigieg, in particular, has seen his support swell in national and primary polls since announcing his candidacy for president a month ago.

Becky Bond, a top adviser to O’Rourke, left his campaign last week along with her deputy, BuzzFeed News reported. Bond told the outlet it was “time for us to move on to other challenges.”

O’Rourke’s presidential campaign is being helmed by Jen O’Malley Dillon, who was deputy campaign manager for Barack Obama in 2012. According to The Washington Post, O’Malley Dillon is “steeped in the intricacies of voter contact and mobilization.”

O’Rourke, like several other candidates in the race, initially eschewed big-donor fundraising events in pursuit of small donations. (On Tuesday, his campaign announced one such event in May, however, a sign his operation may be shifting gears, at least on the money front.) He pulled in $9.4 million in the first quarter of the 2020 presidential campaign, behind only Sanders and Harris.

This has been updated with a comment from O’Rourke spokesman Chris Evans.

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