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O'Malley's Unsolicited Presidential Bid

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley this weekend kicks off his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president.

He’s not going to win, either.

Unlike Bernie Sanders, O’Malley is a perfectly plausible major-party nominee. If he were competing against the 1988 or 1992 or 2004 or even 2008 candidate fields, he would probably be considered a long shot, but he would fit with the likes of Bruce Babbitt (1988) and Chris Dodd (2008), or even with more successful candidates such as John Edwards in 2004 or Michael Dukakis in 1988. We could all have a nice argument about which group he belongs in.

But this presidential cycle features a steamroller. Hillary Clinton continues to dominate the contest by whatever measure one prefers to use. There’s no realistic scenario in which O’Malley beats her.

Today brings more evidence of just how strong Clinton is. The Boston Globe’s James Pindell has been tracking endorsements from New Hampshire politicians, campaign operatives and activists. On the Democratic side, Clinton utterly dominates: 47 of the 50 insiders who have declared support for a candidate are with the former Secretary of State. O’Malley scores two endorsements, and Sanders one. Even more impressive, Clinton has expanded her support since her 2008 run. Her supporters this year include eight people who backed Barack Obama in 2008 and a handful who had supported other Democratic candidates that year. 

If New Hampshire Democrats are indicative of the party nationally -- and every sign suggests they are -- the Democratic Party has already made its choice for 2016. The politicians, campaign and governing professionals, activists, donors, formal party officials, staff, party-aligned interest groups and media who care the most about nominations and have the biggest say in deciding them are supporting Clinton. When that happens, their choice wins.

Brian Beutler of the New Republic is right about O’Malley and Sanders: “Sanders isn't crowding O'Malley out; Hillary Clinton is.” O’Malley is not a protest candidate, trying to move the party in his ideological direction; he is a plausible party nominee. But his party has no need of a generic presidential candidate because it has a superior version in Clinton. As Beutler points out, even an emerging star such as Obama circa 2008 would struggle to find a political opening this time around.

Where does that leave O’Malley? A losing presidential run can still move a politician’s career forward: to the cabinet, or even the vice-presidency. Tennessee Senator Al Gore lost badly in his 1988 presidential run before securing the second slot in 1992. Joe Biden was trounced in both 1988 and 2008 but he's vice president today. Of course, plenty of candidates have been tarnished by their turn in the spotlight, too, including former Colorado Senator Gary Hart.

The bottom line: If O’Malley was running against Senators Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand and Mark Warner, and Governors Deval Patrick and John Hickenlooper, he would be an interesting possibility in a solid but not spectacular field. In the Democrats' 2016 field of one, it’s not clear what he brings to the table.

  1. Of course, Clinton could always drop out from a career-ending scandal or some personal matter. If that happened in the next several months, the nomination fight would reboot with a new set of late-entry candidates. If it happens later...well, that's unprecedented in the modern era, and Democrats would have a nightmare on their hands -- but O'Malley would hardly be poised to automatically inherit the nomination.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net