Politics

What the Media Missed in Its Beto Backlash

Americans still love white, male candidates.

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke talks with voters in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, on Friday.
Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke talks with voters in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, on Friday.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The first few days of Beto O’Rourke’s official presidential campaign seemed to be pretty rough. Last Wednesday, Vanity Fair dropped a cover-story profile that portrayed the not-quite candidate driving around El Paso, Texas, and ruminating about a potential run; it was roundly mocked. He announced his campaign the next day—and was mocked again. After his first campaign stop in Iowa, he had to apologize for a joke about how his wife was raising their three children “sometimes with my help.” A few days later, he vowed to stop cursing so much. Meanwhile, as Slate’s Josh Voorhees summed it up, he was entering the race “as a man without a clear political ideology, a signature legislative achievement, a major policy issue, or a concrete agenda for the country.” To media observers, it looked like O’Rourke had tripped over his shoelaces on the starting line.

Liberals loved O’Rourke when he ran against the reviled Sen. Ted Cruz last year, but that was Ted Cruz. And O’Rourke lost! By the time the still-just-a-congressman from El Paso entered the presidential race, he had become a punchline and a punching bag for media elites. “Every quote that comes out of his mouth sounds like an Instagram caption,” Tom Scocca wrote at Hmm Daily. A reporter for the Columbia Journalism Review wrote a stream-of-consciousness reaction to the Vanity Fair profile that called him a “raging narcissist” and concluded that she wanted to pour bleach in her eyes. Maybe O’Rourke had only seemed charming when he was running against the least charming man in America.

Then came the money. Within 24 hours of announcing his candidacy, his campaign reported, O’Rourke raised $6.1 million online. That impressive total bested Bernie Sanders’ one-day total by $200,000 and dwarfed Kamala Harris’s $1.5 million—and both of them are riding higher in early polls than O’Rourke. As Vanity Fair’s follow-up put it, “Beto Crushes the Skeptics Beneath a Giant Pile of Cash.”

The impressive haul felt like a rebuke to the grousing in elite circles about O’Rourke’s candidacy. Why was his wife “forced to silently gaze” at him in his announcement video, skeptics wondered. What’s with his habit of hopping on restaurant tables and bars? Wouldn’t it be better for Democrats if he ran for Senate in Texas again instead of joining an already crowded presidential field? His past is full of cringe-inducing details, too: He has been arrested twice, including once for a DWI at age 26, and revealed in an interview recently that he belonged to a notorious group of computer hackers as a teenager. He live-streamed his visit to the dentist in January and blogged his way through a soul-searching road trip across the southwest in a style that has been compared to Kerouac and Knausgaard. His Gen-X cultural references and Obama-style fetish for the rhetoric of consensus make him singularly easy to mock.

Beto, you may have noticed, is a white guy. And seeming to register that as a hindrance, he has tried very hard to confront the fact with self-awareness. “The government at all levels is overly represented by white men,” he dutifully acknowledged to Vanity Fair. “That’s part of the problem, and I’m a white man.” He said it was reasonable for people to want a change from America’s near-perfect record of white men in the White House—and to vote for someone else on that basis. His solution is to make sure “those who would comprise my team looked like this country.” On Meet the Press last weekend, he spoke comfortably about his “privileges” and rejected the suggestion that being a white man was a disadvantage in the primary.

Conventional wisdom has it that 2020 is not going to be a white man’s year for Democrats. The Vanity Fair profile referred to O’Rourke’s whiteness and maleness as a “vulnerability.” “How Does a Straight White Male Democrat Run for President?” Politico asked in February. (The answer: “Very carefully.”) “Can white men jump in, or is this post-#MeToo era the time when Democratic and independent women will demand a woman at the top of the ticket?” Maureen Dowd wondered last weekend in the New York Times. Democratic primary voters are “the most diverse electorate in history,” CNN reported, and racial and gender justice issues are important to them. Surely this cohort doesn’t want to elect America’s 45th white guy to the presidency.

But if the generic White Man seems unpopular in Democratic circles right now, specific white men are doing just fine. Joe Biden has topped polls of Democratic primary voters for months. Sanders is close behind him. Together, recent surveys suggest, these two seventysomethings have won the allegiance of more than half of Democratic primary voters. Early polling and early fundraising totals are not terribly predictive. But for right now, they’re what we have—and they do not suggest that being a white male is exactly a burden on the ballot.

Other white men are doing just fine, too. O’Rourke, after all, has the best one-day fundraising total. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is low on buzz but polling above Julián Castro and Kirsten Gillibrand. South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg is polling around 1 percent but received a round of positive publicity after a strong CNN town hall performance last week, raising $600,000 in one day and clearing a hurdle to the Democratic National Committee’s first official debate. Just months after Americans elected a record number of women to Congress, polls suggests that all the female presidential candidates put together have captured less than one-quarter of Democratic votes.

All that online Beto-bashing appears to be a red herring—evidence of the cultural tendency to underestimate the electability of white men even as they remain perfectly viable candidates, coasting on Teflon charm and vague “likability.” The loudest, most prominent voices may not have fallen for the lanky, ruminative congressman from El Paso. But somehow, many liberals still keep forgetting that these voices aren’t the only ones in the room.