WASHINGTON — Can a lesser-known upstart really defeat a titan of Democratic politics like Hillary Clinton?
The answer, of course, is yes. In 2008 his name was Barack Obama.
But Martin O’Malley is no Barack Obama, and such a comparison suffers from several key limitations that illustrate how much steeper a hill O’Malley has to climb than the first-term Illinois senator did six years ago. His odds may depend more on Clinton imploding rather than replicating the Obama formula of gradually chipping away at her lead to victory.
Here are four reasons O’Malley isn’t shaping up to be the Obama of 2016.
Hillary Clinton is much stronger this time
In March 2007, a CNN poll found Hillary Clinton leading the primary field with 37 percent of Democratic support. Barack Obama came in second place with 22 percent. The 15-point gap was significant, but hardly insurmountable.
In March 2015, a CNN poll found Clinton, who has since served as secretary of state, leading the pack with a whopping 62 percent of Democrats. O’Malley drew a mere 1 percent in a fifth place tie, behind Joe Biden (who appears not to be running), Elizabeth Warren (who is not running) and Bernie Sanders (who is undecided and widely seen as an issue-raising candidate if anything).
O’Malley has no Iraq war-like issue to one-up her
The Iraq war was atop the minds of many Democratic voters during the 2008 primaries as they saw it as a monumental disaster. Luckily for Obama, he had spoken out against it at the time while Clinton voted for the war authorization bill that President George W. Bush used to launch the invasion. This was a huge factor that made Obama look like he had the foresight to oppose what Democrats saw as one of America’s most disastrous mistakes, unlike Clinton.
O’Malley is not so lucky. This time around, Clinton has studiously aligned herself with progressives on everything from raising the minimum wage to protecting Obamacare and Wall Street reform to bolstering voting rights. What about Clinton using a private email server as secretary of state? Democratic voters don’t seem to care; just 16 percent of them are even paying attention to the issue, according to a recent Pew poll, and it hasn’t hurt her primary standing. Another wild card may be a brewing controversy over foreign donations to the Clinton foundation, although that, too, isn’t hurting her with Democratic voters.
In short, O’Malley does not have an Iraq war-like panacea issue to siphon Democratic primary voters from Clinton’s camp.
Obama announced early, while O’Malley is still hesitating
One of the maxims of American politics is that hesitation to pursue higher office signals weakness to donors and voters. Obama announced an “exploratory committee” — a traditional stepping stone — as early as January 2007, and formally declared his campaign three weeks later to an adoring crowd in Illinois. That gave Democratic donors and voters plenty of time to evaluate the nominee before many of them decided to throw their support behind the young upstart.
O’Malley, by contrast, still hasn’t revealed his intentions, saying on Sunday he will decide this spring. His recent travels to the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire haven’t substantially boosted his standing while his public speeches and media appearances haven’t grabbed the base. Clinton, already treated as a candidate and frontrunner, is expected to make it official in April.
O’Malley is not nearly as charismatic
Not everybody thought Obama was presidential timber back in 2007, but the man who dazzled the 2004 Democratic convention was already a media sensation by this time in the 2008 presidential cycle, having written a best-selling book and routinely attracting large crowds to his public events.
O’Malley is in a different category. He boasts a more formidable resume than Obama did — a two-term governor who legalized same-sex marriage and allowed in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants — but he has struggled to gain traction. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank described one O’Malley speech this month as a tranquil affair marked by wonky remarks on “data-driven governing” and his actions in Maryland to fix sewer treatment plans and swiftly deal with potholes.
“He may be the Bruce Babbitt of 2016: He appeals to liberal intellectuals,” Milbank wrote, “but this wonk is not about to fire up the party base.”