Martin O’Malley’s pollster had sobering news. Despite extensive time in the public eye and strong statements on controversial issues, the would-be candidate barely registered in a new survey.
The year was 1999, and O’Malley (D), a brash white city councilman in majority-black Baltimore, was contemplating a long-shot bid for mayor.
“To a lot of friends, even my closest friends, it seemed like a pretty outlandish idea initially,” he said. He won that election, and the next, and two terms as Maryland governor after that.
Now he is contemplating an odyssey with even steeper odds. By late January, when his time in Annapolis ends, O’Malley says he “probably” will have decided whether to run for president in 2016, a bid that would be likely to pit him against Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady, senator and secretary of state.
The massive groundswell of support for Clinton — who visited the key early-nominating state of Iowa this weekend for the first time in almost seven years — leaves O’Malley an obvious underdog. But the governor knows firsthand how quickly political fortunes can change. Those close to him say he feels he has little to lose with a White House bid — and no other obvious political options at this point in his career.
O’Malley touts himself as a can-do executive rather than a liberal crusader, despite a litany of progressive accomplishments in Annapolis that most analysts say could position him to run to Clinton’s left in the Democratic primaries. As he travels the country, he speaks of restoring a bygone sense of possibility and repairing the country’s broken political system.
“As Americans, there’s a deep longing to be able to get things done again as a people,” O’Malley said in an interview at the State House. Everywhere he goes, he said, he hears profound frustration with Washington and “great anxiety” among parents who feel they can no longer provide their children with a better life than they’ve had.
A CNN-ORC poll of 309 registered Iowa Democratic voters released Friday found that Clinton had support from 53 percent and O’Malley just 2 percent, with Vice President Biden at 15 percent and other potential presidential candidates also in single digits. Some parts of O’Malley’s gubernatorial record, such as the highly publicized failure last year of Maryland’s online health insurance exchange, could pose additional hurdles for him.
But O’Malley is stumping for fellow Democrats in battleground states and boning up on foreign policy at a time when no other Democrats are talking as openly about a White House bid.
He said he will be “putting this office in cardboard boxes” and moving his family from the governor’s mansion back to Baltimore after the Nov. 4 midterm elections. At some point after that, probably during the holidays, “there will hopefully be some time to catch a breather and decide about next steps.”
O’Malley, 51, is young enough to wait for a future presidential race, without the possibility of a Clinton on the ballot. But there is no obvious way station for him in politics right now. Both of Maryland’s Senate seats are filled by Democrats who show no sign of retiring when their terms end in 2017 and 2019.
“The momentum for him is now,” said one former aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss O’Malley’s future more freely. “He’s a candidate of youth and energy. . . . You never know what’s going to happen in six or 10 years.”
His governorship is loaded with accomplishments that could make Democratic primary voters swoon in 2016: legalizing same-sex marriage, abolishing the death penalty, raising the minimum wage, embracing clean energy sources and expanding immigrants’ rights.
Those legislative victories — and his recent criticism of the White House over its handling of a wave of child immigrants — give him credibility as a liberal alternative to Clinton, many analysts say. But some who have worked for O’Malley say he would not be comfortable as a left-wing poster boy. He did not embrace several of the progressive causes he has championed until well after he arrived in office. And his tough-on-crime credentials as mayor and staunch opposition to legalizing marijuana put him at odds with many liberals.
“If voters are looking for a cookie-cutter candidate to champion every progressive issue, they won’t find that with him,” said Shaun Adamec, a former press secretary. “He’s certainly comfortable being himself.”
If Clinton runs, firing up the liberal base might be O’Malley’s best hope to raise the kind of money he would need for a credible bid, some advisers suggest. But O’Malley, who spent two years as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, could cultivate his ties to major party donors if Clinton falters or decides to stay out of the contest.
In government circles, O’Malley earned recognition as Baltimore mayor for pioneering CitiStat, a statistics-driven management tool that he replicated at the state level to measure his administration’s performance.
He cites those efforts when talking about why he would be a good president “for these times especially.” In an interview earlier this year, O’Malley spoke of “a way of leadership that’s much more collaborative, that’s much more open, that is performance-measured, that is much more interactive.”
“It is the new way of leadership in the information age,” he said. “I believe in my bones that this is the future.”
It’s not entirely clear how that would translate to a campaign pitch. O’Malley has said little about what he would do as president — hardly a surprise, advisers say, since he is not yet a candidate. He talks in broad strokes about empowering the middle class, investing in infrastructure and building an economy “with a human purpose.”
“I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of the cynicism,” he said in one recent address. “I’ve had enough of the apathy. I’ve had enough of us giving in to self-pity, small solutions and low expectations of one another. Let’s remember who we are.”
O’Malley’s best path, some observers say, might be to replicate the 2004 presidential bid of Vermont’s Howard Dean (D), a governor from a small state who was endorsed by O’Malley and who appealed to his party’s left wing with strong opposition to the Iraq war and a call for universal health care.
Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic operative who ran Dean’s campaign, said a better comparison might be the 1984 primary contest between former vice president Walter Mondale and Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.). Trippi managed Mondale’s campaign in Iowa, while O’Malley worked for Hart there. Mondale, the establishment choice, won easily, but Hart came in second and emerged as Mondale’s chief rival.
“I think right now O’Malley is running to become the other guy, with the hope that the field will quickly narrow to two candidates,” Trippi said. While Clinton would be the heavy favorite in a duel with O’Malley, “of all the people out there, he’s the one I would be most worried about.”
The Maryland governor, Trippi said, should draw a contrast “between past and future, between old and new.”
O’Malley’s frequent political travel has connected him with party activists who could be helpful in the 2016 election cycle. The governor’s decision to dispatch more than two dozen campaign staffers to help with races in other states this fall was particularly welcome in Iowa, said Tom Henderson, the longtime chairman of the Polk County Democrats. He said O’Malley, who has been to Iowa three times since June, is also starting to make an impression in other ways.
“If he runs, I think he’d be very competitive here,” said Henderson, who said he’s been impressed with O’Malley’s ability to relate to voters in small settings. “Hillary has some very devoted supporters, but there’s a big opening for another candidate.”
In the next two months, O’Malley is slated to again visit Iowa, as well as New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. All four states will hold early nominating contests in 2016.
The governor says he has no timeline for “any formal announcement” of a presidential bid. In an interview last week, he was more eager to reminisce about old campaigns than to talk about a possible new one. He brought up the only political race he has ever lost: a 1990 primary bid against a sitting state senator, who beat him by 44 votes.
When he arrived at an election night party, he said, his supporters surprised him by “cheering ecstatically.” O’Malley asked a close friend what was going on and said he was told: “They’re shocked as hell that you even came this close.”