The Myth of Beto O’Rourke

When does monster fundraising turn into real momentum?

Beto O'Rourke at the kickoff of his presidential campaign in Houston on Saturday (David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

Beto O’Rourke’s fundraising is record-breaking, it is enormous, it is frightening and disheartening to other campaigns, it is likely to be more in a quarter than most candidates will raise in a year, and it is coming in more easily than his team expected—but it also isn’t just happening on its own.

In internal discussions, as he prepared to formally announce his campaign in mid-March, the former representative gave very clear directions to staff members: Do what needs to be done, spend what needs to be spent, as long as it means beating Bernie Sanders’s 24-hour fundraising total.

They did. They were just surprised at how little effort it took. Sanders raised $5.9 million, though without directly asking for donations. O’Rourke emailed his supporters repeatedly with lines like, “We will be heavily outspent,” urging them not only to give small money but to give the maximum legal amount, not just for what he’ll be able to spend in the primary but also for what he’d be able to spend in the general election if he’s the nominee. And it worked.

He raised $6.1 million on March 14, the most of any candidate in a single day, ever. And with first-quarter fundraising having ended on March 31, he’s widely expected to easily beat the fundraising totals of nearly every other campaign—he raised more than $1 million this past weekend—by hitting up his list again and again with dire warnings like, “Beto is playing catch up to other candidates with more campaign funds.”

Myth is important to O’Rourke. He named his oldest son Ulysses because he loves The Odyssey, and likes to talk about how it’s a story of a man having adventures on a quest to get back to his wife (he leaves out the part about Odysseus turning around and leaving Penelope again to search for his father, after 10 years fighting in the Trojan War and 10 years at sea). In his early stops on the campaign trail, he’s mentioned several times that he’s been rereading Joseph Campbell, explaining how he’s taken the “follow your bliss” advice of the man who wrote of the archetypal hero in his book, The Power of Myth.

O’Rourke’s own myth is about being a phenomenon in raising money online, drawing massive crowds and speaking sincerely, from his heart. There’s no question that O’Rourke can do all those things, but as Ivanka Trump wrote in her 2017 book, “cultivating authenticity is essential to creating strong bonds” with people.

O’Rourke’s official campaign kickoff, with three stops in Texas on Saturday, was about generating interest ahead of the fundraising deadline, and about demonstrating that he could draw big crowds. The numbers soon got fuzzy. At O’Rourke’s first event of the day, in his hometown of El Paso, the police department estimated that 1,000 to 2,000 attended. The number was higher than what many candidates could draw, yet O’Rourke’s campaign said the number was actually 6,000. It claimed that 10,500 came to see him in Houston in the afternoon, and another 14,000 came to see him just before midnight in front of the state capitol in Austin, though Austin Mayor Steve Adler told me that he’d put the number at 6,000.

An O’Rourke spokesman did not respond when asked about the discrepancies. But even by the campaign’s estimates, he fell short of his own benchmark in February, when an estimated 7,500 people came to the counterrally he held the night Donald Trump flew to El Paso to unveil his “Finish the wall” slogan. None of the events topped the 22,000 that Kamala Harris drew in Oakland, California, for her kickoff rally, and all fell short of the crowds at the three rallies Bernie Sanders held in California on March 22–24. Estimates put Sanders at 6,400 on Friday afternoon in San Diego, 15,000 on Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles, and 16,000 on Sunday afternoon in San Francisco.

Adler said he was still very impressed by the turnout in Texas, especially at the Austin event, which was late on a Saturday night, and cold.

“He gets measured by how people feel when they hear him speak,” said Adler, who helped warm up the crowd before the event. “There’s a connection … I don’t know that you can describe what that is; I don’t know that that’s something you can learn.”

A little while later, O’Rourke took the stage, introduced excitedly by the woman speaking ahead of him as “the man—not the myth, but the legend.” In front of him were the official Viva Beto signs produced by his campaign, in what’s now become the familiar simple but bold white text on a black background, as well as a number of handmade signs, including Make America Beto Again and Beto is Our Christ.

When Elizabeth Warren lost her voice in the middle of her weekend tour of Iowa in January, some sneered that she was showing her age. When O’Rourke’s voice was cracking hoarse by the end of his third rally of the day in Texas, that was taken as proof of his passion, and how much of himself he’s thrown into the race.

O’Rourke spoke at all three events without a podium, and without notes, each time going on for at least 20 minutes. This produced the same sort of raves that he won from admirers, including some reporters, for standing on countertops and tables and speaking without notes during his first week of events after announcing—though every candidate speaks regularly without notes.

“I will say, Beto memorizing his entire announcement speech, including what sounded like a few paragraphs of Spanish, is not an easy thing to do,” Jon Favreau, the Pod Save America co-host, tweeted on Saturday.

The speeches were definitely memorized, and expressed support for a wide range of positions: universal health care, universal pre-K, higher pay for teachers, debt-free college, strengthening unions, expanding apprenticeships, investing in rural broadband, exploring new technologies to combat climate change, equal pay for women, paid family leave, legalizing marijuana and expunging records of drug convictions, protecting Dreamers, and opening a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.

At this point, all those positions put him alongside pretty much everyone else in the Democratic field.

But stand by O’Rourke, he says, and his belief in unity despite people’s many differences, and that faith will enable him to get things done.

“Let those differences not define us, or divide us at this moment. Let’s agree that before we are anything else, we are Americans first,” he said, in a line that boiled down his whole pitch.

O’Rourke’s confidence in that pitch is rooted in what he achieved in his Senate campaign last year, when he transformed turnout in the state and went on to receive more votes than any Democrat in Texas history. He lost, as he acknowledged in each speech on Saturday, but went on to insist that his campaign worked because of everyone his coattails helped elect and because of his message, which resonated with people. Now, he says, he has shown that Texas is in play—leaving aside the fact that many doubt that if he ran instead for Senate again next year, against John Cornyn, he probably wouldn’t win and might not even come as close as he did to beating Ted Cruz last year.

O’Rourke’s thoughtfulness is key to his image as well, and he certainly comes at topics with a genuine off-the-cuff consideration. But sometimes his penchant for poetry and big ideas trips him up, such as his repeated references on Saturday to an Iraq War going on “27 years and counting.” (The latest Iraq War began in 2003, and Barack Obama ended combat operations there in 2011. The prior Iraq war, known as Desert Storm, took place in 1991.) At the final speech in Austin, O’Rourke cited this in saying that he wants to make sure to give proper care to the veterans who might be coming back from that war “tomorrow.”

O’Rourke’s spokesman did not respond to questions about what timelines and definitions he was relying on in arriving at the “27 years” claim, or how an O’Rourke administration policy in Iraq would be different from the current one in fulfilling his promise to “bring these service members back home to their families, to their communities, and to their country.”

Likewise, when advocating for federal marijuana legalization, he left the facts blurry. In El Paso, he said that marijuana is “legal in more than half the country,” while in Austin, he said it is “legal in most states in the union,” though the drug is only fully legal in 10 states (and legal for medicinal purposes in another 22).

O’Rourke has shot forward to low double digits in the polls, ahead of most of the people who beat him into the race, and appears to retain about the same level of popularity across age groups and other demographic breakdowns. Media coverage of him raises his name identification, and name identification raises his poll numbers, and raising his poll numbers raises his media coverage, and all that helps his mammoth fundraising, so he might just be able to will his dream into reality.

“This isn’t smoke and mirrors,” says Michael Trujillo, a Democratic consultant who was advising the Draft Beto effort but has not yet signed up with the campaign. “What he’s putting down is fire, fire, fire.”