Sam Wright, 5, of Madison, Wis., on the shoulders of his father, Jacob, asks Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke "can you please be nice" in Madison, Wis., on Sunday. (Amber Arnold/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)
Opinion writer

Beto O’Rourke, whatever you think of his celebrity treatment or his qualifications, has debunked, once more, the notion that the parties must cater to their most extreme elements. You would have thought Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), purveyor of conservative purity (until he simply became a water-carrier for President Trump), or socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) won their respective parties’ nominations in 2016. Instead, Trump, a heretic on much of the Republican hymnal, and Hillary Clinton, the quintessential middle-of-the-road Democrat, beat much more ideological rivals.

So, too, we see that when O’Rourke, whom the far left criticizes for being insufficiently dogmatic, enters the race, the excitement level and fundraising go through the roof. While party insiders and partisan pundits make fine distinctions between Medicare-for-all and universal coverage (the difference utterly escapes most voters). O’Rourke tells voters we’ve got this, we can do this. It’s not the ideological label that moves most voters, especially young voters, but the energy, the outlook, the vision and the persona.

That may be a very bad way to pick a president, especially when the candidate doesn’t have a long track record in politics, but it’s how many voters approach presidential elections. Superficiality has dominated presidential politics for some time, a fact not lost on the least qualified president to ever hold the office.

Sanders had a big following in 2016 but lost convincingly among Democratic primary voters. It was anti-establishment independents, left-wing populists if you will, who fueled his campaign. (It was not so bizarre that many independents had a hard time deciding between Trump and Sanders; they wanted someone to blow up the system whatever the ideological underpinnings.)

The vast majority of Democratic primary voters then and now do not identify as democratic socialists. Perhaps Sanders capitalized on unaffiliated anti-establishment types and Democrats who preferred him despite his ideology and not because of it. Move forward to the 2020 contests. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is providing the most substantive, interesting agenda that committed progressives could hope to see. Yet she is lagging in the polls. If this was all about progressive ideology and policy plans, she’d be running rings around the rest of the field.

As for Sanders, he benefits this time around from 100 percent name identification. However, the flip side of 100 percent name ID is that he’s no longer new, no longer saying things no one else will. He’s just as much of a democratic socialist as he was in 2016, but in the space of a few days we’ve seen that the “energy” isn’t all on the left; it’s drifting toward a centrist, young, optimistic candidate. Voters follow the energy and the ethos. They don’t carry around a thermometer gauging where on the scale of ideological purity each candidate rates.

Especially in a year in which Democrats are absolutely desperate to win, they are much more likely to find someone whose personality, ethos, intellect and vision both contrast with Trump’s and could appeal to a broad range of voters.

We go back to the 2018 midterms. Jim Kessler and Lanae Erickson wrote:

Twenty-three million people cast ballots for Democrats in the 2018 midterm primary season, and more than 50 million voted for Democrats on Tuesday in the general election. As the political focus now immediately turns to the 2020 presidential race, what should the legions of Democrats seeking to defeat Trump conclude from all of that voting? Despite all the talk about how “all the energy is on the left,” progressive populism and democratic socialism underwhelmed in the primaries and were close to shut out in competitive general elections. The actual voting energy in the midterms propelled mostly mainstream Democrats who closely matched their purple and red districts or states. …

The moderate New Democratic caucus in the U.S. House endorsed 37 candidates in primary races, and 32 earned the nomination — an 86 percent win rate. By contrast, Our Revolution, the grass-roots organization founded and run by Bernie Sanders’s backers, had a win rate under 40 percent in the primaries. Once the general election rolled around, 23 New Democrat-backed candidates flipped House seats to help gain the majority, while not a single Our Revolution-endorsed candidate captured a red seat. Zero.

All you need to be is progressive enough to win a Democratic primary. Seeming more moderate than the Sanders clan is an advantage in the general election.

Why are pundits, the media and party insiders so convinced that ideological extremism equals energy/success? Part of it may be wishful thinking for progressives. However, part of the difficulty is linguistic. "Moderate” sounds to many ears to mean mild-mannered, prone to compromise and wishy-washy in beliefs. Nonsense. If ever there was a radical moderate, a fervent centrist Democrat, it’s O’Rourke. And gosh, he’s showing that can be exciting.

At this stage, no one knows whether O’Rourke has the capacity to develop as a candidate, reassure voters of his gravitas and meet the commander-in-chief test. However, if he fails to win the nomination, it won’t be because he’s a moderate Democrat. It will be because he wasn’t able to combine energy and optimism with enough presidential weightiness to convince Democrats he will be able to stand on the stage with and stand up to Trump.

Read more:

Jim Kessler and Lanae Erickson: Don’t let progressives fool you. Moderate Democrats can win.

Paul Waldman: Do Democrats really have to worry about the left? Actually, not so much.

Ed Rogers: The Beto O’Rourke backlash

Kathleen Parker: Beto O’Rourke’s 2020 campaign is a youthful folly

The Ranking Committee: It’s time for Democrats to make a huge 2020 choice. (Republicans, too.)