Beto O’Rourke lit up the 2020 US presidential election race last week by throwing his hat into the ring.
The Democrat shot to fame last year when he ran for the US Senate and only narrowly lost out to his rival in the deeply Republican state of Texas.
His failure in that election was counter-intuitively his making on the national political scene. O’Rourke ran a well-funded and organised campaign that showcased a heady cocktail impassioned beliefs and eloquence which lent itself perfectly to the social media generation.
Plaudits duly followed. His moderate views, ability to run a solid campaign, and star quality on the podium make him the dream candidate for financial markets.
But the sheer ecstasy of some commentators – one TV network went as far as hiring a golf buggy to chase him as he ran a 5km race on the opening weekend of his campaign – should be tempered.
Many of O’Rourke’s greatest strengths could yet prove to be weaknesses in the extremely crowded Democratic primaries and highly polarised political environment.
His youth means that he is able to engage increasingly disenfranchised young people in a way that elder statesmen struggle with. But those young people still need to turn out to vote. Often they don’t: only 46 per cent of 18-29 year olds voted in 2016, compared to 71 per cent of those older than 65.
At just 46, O’Rourke is also young by the standards of American Presidents. The average age is just over 55, while many of the greats, such as Harry Truman (60), Dwight Eisenhower (62), and George Washington (67) were much older. Donald Trump, remember, is 72.
Just as youth can be associated with new ideas, vigour and vitality, it may also suggest naivety, inexperience, and hubris. And while Trump used inexperience as a weapon to rail against the establishment, O’Rourke is very much part of that establishment, and is acutely cosmopolitan.
Profiles in Vanity Fair and endorsements from Oprah Winfrey will help in some quarters, but will hurt in the parts of the country where clean-cut politicians are sneered at.
Many take O’Rourke’s near-win in Texas last year as proof that he has what it takes to run for President. He lost to the Republican incumbent Ted Cruz by less than three percentage points, the closest a Democrat has come to claiming the Lone Star state since 1988.
But the Republican party has been losing ground in Texas for a while. In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost Texas by the closest margin of any Democrat candidate since 1996.
Republican legislation, like an immigration bill that is deeply unpopular among the state’s large Hispanic community, has drained support. President Trump’s divisiveness has quickened the decline.
All of this gave Spanish-speaking O’Rourke, who represented a heavily Latino district in Texas, a fair wind. He won big cities like San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, Houston and Austin, giving further credence to his cosmopolitan, urban appeal.
But some of the biggest challenges he faces are within his own party. The Democratic primaries are set to be extremely crowded and the party itself is struggling to find where the new centre-ground of the left sits.
O’Rourke might well appeal to centrist independent voters in a head-to-head with Trump. First though, he will need a succinct policy agenda to bridge the gap to the energised liberal voter base in order to win the nomination in the highly competitive primaries process.
None of this should take away from his achievements. But the race for Texas is not a blueprint for that for the presidency. The path to the White House is paved with obstacles, the first of which will be within the Democratic party itself as it searches for its new identity.