Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters need to take a look at Martin O’Malley.
To begin, I must emphasize that I am not officially supporting the presidential campaign of Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland. This article is focusing on his candidacy because there is a practical argument to be made in favor of nominating him – one that is too compelling, even alarming, to be safely ignored.
Right now the Democratic Party has a problem. There are only three candidates left in the race – former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and O’Malley – and it is widely assumed that one of them, Sanders, is unelectable. As political scientist Monica Bauer explained in an editorial for The Huffington Post, “it seems clear to me his open dismissal of capitalism makes him pretty much unelectable in a general election, and thus a disaster for the Democratic party, if they were to nominate him for president.” This view is hardly limited to Bauer; in fact, it sums up the conventional wisdom held by the Democratic Party for pretty much as long as “socialist” has been used as epithet in this country. Although I personally feel that the stigma surrounding that term is unfounded, that doesn’t alter the objective facts regarding its potency. At the very least, a detached analyst has to concede that Sanders is a very risky candidate in terms of his ability to win the general election.
The same thing must be said about Clinton. While she is certainly more moderate than Sanders, the former First Lady has prohibitively high unfavorability ratings in swing states like Colorado, Iowa, Virginia, Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. “Since voters in general elections normally won’t vote for a candidate they don’t like or at least find trustworthy, it’s imperative that a Democratic nominee hold positive favorability ratings going into Election Day,” observed columnist H. A. Goodman in The Huffington Post, who goes on to note that the combined electoral votes of the six aforementioned swing states are enough to deny the presidency to any candidate who lose all of them. What’s more, Clinton’s numbers against her potential Republican opponents are disturbingly weak: A recent CNN/ORC survey had her losing by one point to Ben Carson and ahead of Donald Trump by only five (Sanders loses to Carson by two and beats Trump by eleven), while a Fox News Poll taken roughly the same time found her losing to Trump by five, to Carson by eleven, to Jeb Bush by four, and to Carly Fiorina by three (Sanders wasn’t included in that poll).
That leaves O’Malley, who despite being a popular two-term governor has so far not been taken seriously enough to even appear in face-to-face polls against various Republicans. Examining his record, one finds a strong enough resume: As mayor of Baltimore, his innovative cost-saving measures helped the city earn its first budget surplus in years, and his overall reputation for competence led to him being considered one of America’s top young big city mayors during his tenure. Upon being elected governor of Maryland, O’Malley proceeded to rack up a series of impressive progressive accomplishments, including abolishing the death penalty, raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, legalizing same-sex marriage, extending in-state tuition breaks to undocumented immigrants, and passing stricter gun control regulations despite heavy opposition from conservative Democrats as well as Republicans. This isn’t to say that O’Malley is without his own weaknesses – his “zero tolerance” policies as Baltimore mayor are blamed by many activists for worsening mistreatment of racial minorities by that city’s police, while his various social programs resulted in tax increases that could prove damaging if brought up in a general election. Nevertheless, as Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller put it, O’Malley was “the most effective Maryland governor since the mid-1970s,” which if nothing else earns him his right to be taken seriously next to his primary opponents.
None of this means that Democrats currently supporting Clinton or Sanders should abandon those options for O’Malley. That said, any Democrat who sincerely believes that a Republican victory next November would be disastrous for America must acknowledge that serious questions exist about both Clinton’s and Sanders’ electability. If they want to effectively confront these concerns, they need to do three things:
- They must interrogate Clinton and Sanders as to why they believe they can win. It isn’t enough for the two frontrunners to simply mouth platitudes about how their message and/or record will be strong enough to impress ordinary voters during the general election. Each one should be pressed to lay out, in a logical fashion, how they expect to win despite their potentially debilitating weaknesses. If they can’t or won’t do this, then their nominations would be liabilities to the party.
- They must start taking Martin O’Malley seriously as a presidential candidate. During the Saturday Night Live parody of the first Democratic debate, the sketch comedians included several jokes about O’Malley’s political irrelevance in terms of that contest. This is a foolish attitude, if for no other reason than it cuts the party off from an alternative that clearly requires sober consideration right now. This brings me to the third lesson…
- Democrats must never again allow their candidate field to become this limited. At its largest, the Democratic candidate field included five options in this race – Clinton, Sanders, O’Malley, Lincoln Chaffee (former senator and governor from Rhode Island), and Jim Webb (former senator from Virginia). Even if Clinton or Sanders is nominated and subsequently elected, the mere fact that the party is in its current predicament demonstrates the danger of not having a variety of contenders in the primaries. This should be instructive.
In an ideal America, the Democratic Party wouldn’t face the possibility of defeat more than a year away from the general election simply because there are only three candidates left before the race has officially started. If the party didn’t find itself in that very specific situation, there would be no need for pragmatic editorials like this one. Be that as it may, Democrats cannot afford to put Trump, Carson, Cruz, or Bush in the White House simply because they’d rather not admit that their preferred choice is unable to win. Because O’Malley is in the race, there is a third option that potentially staves off the dangers posed by a Clinton or Sanders nomination.
In light of the dire stakes involved, it behooves us to take him seriously.