Martin O’Malley Becomes Leading Democratic Alternative to Clinton

Originally published December 10, 2014

Date: Winter 2015

(Annapolis) Among committed progressives in 2015, a Mid-Atlantic ex-Governor became their last resort hope. With almost every major progressive star taking a pass on the 2016 race, progressive hopes fell (relatively) on a young ex-Democratic Governor from Maryland. At age 52, Martin O’Malley (D-Maryland) was considered an attractive alternative to Hillary Clinton.

Written off for dead after Governor Larry Hogan (R-Maryland) took the Governor’s mansion, Mr. O’Malley fell back on his 2014 campaign foray and liberal record amassed in Maryland to appeal to the Democratic base. The Democratic bench was so thin that progressive activists seeking an alternative to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D-New York) actively entertained Mr. O’Malley. The Democracy Alliance group largely split their endorsements between Ms. Clinton and Mr. O’Malley, while Mr. O’Malley garnered support in the early states.

Mr. O’Malley’s campaign did not lack for staff, but it was a rag tag staff. Unlike the juggernaut Clinton campaign, the O’Malley campaign was a barebones operation throughout much of 2015. Polling had been sparse, with everyone assuming Ms. Clinton would be the overwhelming favorite. Donors who donated to Mr. O’Malley were overshadowed by the large bulk of pro-Clinton donors. In many ways, in hindsight, Mr. O’Malley was the “Anyone But Hillary” candidate. His support garnered was largely from the Left, which was burned after two terms of President Barack Obama (D-Illinois) and who hungered for a true populist.

Mr. O’Malley also had an edge over Ms. Clinton. He had spent far more time and energy organizing and campaigning in the early states than she had. He also had a far more sharp populist message, being freer to campaign on these issues than Ms. Clinton. Ms. Clinton had to contend with the disparate wings of the Democratic Party and had to please the several competing factions, which hobbled her in 2015. Mr. O’Malley had no such constraints and focused his energies on the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

The Clinton campaign did not start focusing firing on Mr. O’Malley until November 2015. attacking him on his failure to hold Maryland for the Democrats, and his regressive taxes. Top Clinton aides later admitted that Mr. O’Malley’s highly liberal persona and past made it hard to attack Mr. O’Malley ideologically. But in turn, Mr. O’Malley had the more effective message. Internal polls and messaging inside the O’Malley campaign showed that in Iowa, New Hampshire, and elsewhere, people who heard the O’Malley message were far more likely to vote for him than the Clinton message. They also showed that the attacks weren’t having their desired impact; nobody cared that Maryland had flipped Republican except the donors and the Clinton neoliberal record was the weak underbelly of the Clinton candidacy among Democratic activist voters.

History would ultimately record that Marty O’Malley was a far more formidable candidate than imagined.

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