DES MOINES — Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley announced the suspension of his presidential campaign Monday night, following a dismal showing in the Iowa caucuses that effectively ended his long-simmering White House ambitions.
O’Malley, who had started laying the groundwork for a presidential bid following his 2010 reelection as governor, was lagging far behind former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. With 90 percent of precincts reporting, O’Malley registered support from less than 1 percent of caucus-goers.
“I want to thank everyone who came out to our events and lent me their ear and everyone who went out to caucus for me tonight,” O’Malley told supporters as he announced his decision.
O’Malley’s effort to cast himself as being at the forefront of a “new generation of leadership” never gained traction, as he struggled to raise money and get a toehold in the polls after formally announcing his bid in late May in Baltimore.
Although O’Malley, 53, appeared to be well-liked by many of the Iowa caucus-goers whose support he tirelessly courted, he was unable to make a compelling argument as to why they should side with him over Clinton, a Democrat backed by much of the party establishment, and Sanders, an insurgent candidate who captivated the restless left wing of the party.
In some respects, O’Malley’s failure to connect was surprising given a litany of accomplishments as governor that made liberals swoon: legalization of same-sex marriage, repeal of the death penalty and passage of Maryland’s version of the Dream Act to benefit college-bound undocumented immigrants.
O’Malley’s bid suffered a series of setbacks — some of his own making — that began before he declared his candidacy.
Anthony G. Brown, O’Malley’s hand-picked successor for governor of Maryland, a heavily Democratic state, suffered a humiliating defeat to a Republican in a 2014 race that in many respects turned into a referendum on O’Malley’s tenure, which included not only his progressive policy victories but also a series of tax increases. The loss gave pause to some in the Democratic donor community just as they were evaluating O’Malley as a credible Clinton alternative.
The month before O’Malley announced his bid, riots broke out in Baltimore following the death of a young black man in police custody. The episode sparked renewed criticism of O’Malley’s policing policies during the seven years he had served as mayor of the city, with his critics charging that his “zero tolerance” approach strained relations with the African American community.
The riots undercut O’Malley’s ability to sell Baltimore’s renaissance, a theme he pushed during a couple of years on the Democratic Party dinner circuit during his run-up to launching a full-fledged presidential campaign.
After remaining coy about his intentions during the first half of last year, O’Malley announced his candidacy in late May, more than four months after he left office as governor. He said he needed the time to generate income for his family, but many Democratic analysts argued that he had lost valuable time trying to become better known on the national stage.
By the time O’Malley did make his bid official, interest in Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist” whom pundits initially wrote off as a fringe candidate, was starting to swell. As Sanders drew eye-popping crowds on the campaign trail, he became the go-to candidate for many party activists who viewed Clinton as too tied to Wall Street and corporate interests.
Early on, O’Malley adopted much of the “rigged economy” rhetoric of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who had been urged to run for president by legions of left-wing activists. Once it became clear that the vast majority of her supporters had found a home with Sanders, O’Malley recast his candidacy as one of a leader “with 15 years of executive experience” — something voters didn’t seem to be looking for in a cycle where anger and anti-establishment rhetoric has been rewarded.
For O’Malley, the race was a constant struggle to become better known. He cried foul when the Democratic National Committee announced that it would limit the number of Democratic presidential debates to six, only four of which would take place before the first nominating contests in Iowa. O’Malley accused the DNC of “circling the wagons” to protect Clinton. He got attention for the charge but didn’t seem to benefit much from the debates that were held.
Even as his prospects appeared dim, O’Malley remained a happy warrior on the campaign trail. Ever since his days a Baltimore City Council member, he has had a side career as a musician, fronting a Celtic rock band called O’Malley’s March. At the end of his campaign events, he would frequently play a song for his audiences on a borrowed guitar.
O’Malley’s optimism seemed to spring from his experiences decades earlier as a young campaign staffer for 1984 presidential hopeful Gary Hart. In the months leading up to the Iowa caucuses that year, Hart lagged in the polls. He managed to pull off a better-than-expected showing in Iowa, however, which catapulted him to a win in New Hampshire and made him the chief challenger for the nomination to establishment favorite Walter Mondale.
Throughout this campaign, O’Malley’s fundraising was dwarfed by that of his two rivals. During the final quarter of the year, he reported receipts of $1.5 million, including a $500,000 loan, compared to $37 million for Clinton and $33.6 million for Sanders. The disparity hurt O’Malley in a number of ways, including making it impossible for him to air television ads in the early nominating states, as Clinton and Sanders have done.
In the closing weeks of the race, O’Malley remained a figure still unknown among large swaths of the American public. Shortly before the Iowa caucuses, late night television host Jimmy Kimmel ran a segment in which an interviewer showed people on the streets of Los Angeles a picture of O’Malley and asked if they knew who he was. It took more than a dozen tries before someone could identify him.
It’s unclear what O’Malley’s next step will be. He is a lawyer by training and has served as a visiting professor at the business school at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. O’Malley has said he has no interest in a Cabinet position in a Democratic administration.