In 2013, Washington Monthly called Martin O’Malley “arguably the best manager working in government today,” and said “every pundit in America has predicted he’s going to run” in 2016. The next year, U.S. News & World Report predicted a run “would inevitably elevate [him] as a national player and perhaps position [him] for a slot in a Clinton cabinet.” And when O’Malley formally announced his campaign in May, The New York Times noted that his “good looks” and resume would be “irresistible” to his party in any other campaign cycle.
But not this time, and not with the Democratic National Committee making it difficult for O’Malley and Sanders to raise their profiles through debates. While Sanders has seized on the populist anger within the party, O’Malley has yet to lay claim to any significant slice of the electorate. He was supposed to take on Clinton squarely from the left, but Sanders has taken his spot.
Nor is O’Malley’s identity as a policy wonk—a role more often attributed to bookish senators—enough to put him ahead of his opponents. An analysis earlier this year from Bloomberg Politics describes his strategic problem:
Some 20 major candidates are running for president in 2016, but just one of them has put his name to a series of detailed policy proposals that activists in his base call "fantastic" and "great" and "moving the debate forward."
The problem? That candidate is stuck at 1 or 2 percent in the polls. … The approach suits the former governor and ex-Baltimore mayor, a policy nerd at heart who speaks fondly about his love of "data-driven governing." He boasts about the initiatives he took to reduce storm-water runoff and improve sewer treatment plants. Excited yet?
Well, that reveals the limitations for O'Malley. He has yet to communicate his ideas in a way that strikes a chord with voters who don't follow the minutiae of public policy, progressives say.
In some ways, O’Malley’s problems are similar to those of the longtime public servants on the GOP side. He’s put the time in to gain voters’ trust as a city councilman, mayor, and governor; but that’s not enough to combat the more magnetic candidates running alongside him.
When the “maverick” Kentucky senator launched his presidential campaign in April, he did so with big-tent ambitions, angling himself as a welcoming figure to Americans disillusioned with Washington. Paul framed himself as the opposite of a “Washington machine” insider, and the candidate who wouldn’t go easily to war. Campaign watchers didn’t really have any doubt that Paul—with his conservative pedigree, fondness for quasi-filibusters, and appeal to young people—would have trouble attracting attention. The American Prospect reported in late 2014 that “[f]ew in American politics know how to seize a political moment like Paul does.” Earlier that year, CNN wrote that Paul “quickly distinguished himself as unwilling to take the traditional freshman role of keeping quiet” when he was elected to the Senate, and cited his anti-NSA activism and outreach to minorities as assets for his political future.