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Why did Martin O’Malley tank so bad?

Written By | Jul 2, 2015

WASHINGTON, July 2, 2015 – Last week’s CNN/WMUR poll places Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders just eight measly points before Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. Vice President Joe Biden is mulling a summer entry into the Democratic contest. The recent coverage of the Sanders surge and Biden’s dance has been an unwelcome backdrop as Clinton continues to fend off criticism for failing to release her State Department emails.

What a horrible week to be Martin O’Malley.

On paper, O’Malley looks like he would be the natural alternative for Democratic primary voters wary (or sick) of the scandal-plagued Clinton. The 52-year-old former two-term governor of Maryland offers an experienced, credible and somewhat younger option, especially those frustrated by Clinton’s scandals or the media’s assumption of her inevitability.

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Yet Sanders, the senator in his seventies, has become the vogue choice for today’s anti-establishment Democrat. The gaffe-prone but avuncular Biden is in third place in New Hampshire but second in national polls, for what they’re worth. O’Malley polled at 3 percent in that CNN/WMUR poll and has been idling in the single digits in just about every national poll. On the leaderboard, O’Malley’s closest neighbors are former Sen. Jim Webb and former Gov. Lincoln Chafee, whose most notable contributions to the election cycle’s discourse so far have been a spirited defense of the Confederate flag and a rousing endorsement of the metric system, respectively.

Sure, there are Republicans polling at the bottom of their pack, but they face a field without a clear frontrunner. Polling in the single digits when the leader is at 18 percent doesn’t represent the same uphill climb, and a good week with an organized campaign can shift the rankings quickly.

But O’Malley’s frontrunner is polling consistently at 55-60 percent nationally, and there are two candidates with significantly better blocks of support than he has. In other words, barring an indictment of Clinton and/or some other seismic event which shifts the Democratic landscape, O’Malley is toast.

But why?

It’s tempting to write off O’Malley’s failure as a matter of being 2016’s version Tim Pawlenty. The former governor of Minnesota never caught fire in the 2012 GOP primary and bowed out before months before any primary votes were cast. The rap on Pawlenty was that he wasn’t exciting enough to woo voters away from the front-running Mitt Romney.

It sure looks like history repeating. But there’s something else which appears to be holding O’Malley back.

A previous CNN/ORC poll contained some troubling news for Clinton among non-white voters, but it showed O’Malley had big problems of his own with those same demographics. That poll didn’t report head-to-head matchups between the Republican field and O’Malley (or any other Democrat).


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Yet the pollsters did ask a telling question, inquiring whether respondents associated each candidate with the past or the future. Clinton, overall, had 45 percent of the respondents associate her with the past, with 51 percent associating her with the future. Among non-white audiences, her past/future split was 27 to 71 percent – a marked improvement, even among a demographic she didn’t do as well with as she needed to.

OMalley’s past/future split is 42-32 percent, and that gets slightly worse among non-whites, at 46-34 percent. In other words, nearly half of minority voters feel O’Malley is a voice from the past. His past-future split is almost identical in urban areas, too.

Compare that score with Republican candidates and probable candidates. Sen. Marco Rubio (35 percent past to 55 percent future), Gov. Scott Walker (45 percent past to 44 percent future), Sen. Rand Paul (48 percent past to 47 percnet future) all outpaced O’Malley with non-white voters. Even Gov. Chris Christie (49 percent past to 44 percent future) did better.

O’Malley’s struggles may stem from the Baltimore riots. Policies he instituted during his time as mayor to clean up the streets were roundly criticized, even by his allies. Specifically, his aggressive moves to curb petty crime and tamp down crime rates were blamed for stoking a culture of lawlessness among police officers and exacerbating distrust between neighborhoods and law enforcement.

How could O’Malley go on the attack to paint Clinton as a conniving politico determined to win “by any means necessary” while weighed down by the albatross of Baltimore’s police culture?

If the Democrats have a contested primary for 2016, it will apparently feature a three-way race between the front-running Clinton, the outspoken Sanders and the likable fan favorite Biden. O’Malley’s sputtering campaign doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Jim Eltringham

Jim Eltringham is a grassroots political consultant and Vice President of Advantage, a voter contact and mobilization firm. He has designed and implemented campaigns merging multiple online and offline tactics for a range of political and advocacy organizations. Eltringham lives in Centreville, Virginia with his wife and their two daughters.