With barely 10 weeks before Democrats start picking their presidential nominee, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley’s campaign is perilously close to financial collapse.
The Democratic hopeful this week began asking the roughly 30 staffers at his Baltimore headquarters to redeploy to Iowa and elsewhere, a tacit acknowledgment that he will need a surprisingly strong showing in the first caucus state to stay in the race.
And the campaign on Thursday was awarded public matching funds, a move that could help pay bills in the short term but undercut the candidate’s ability to compete once the voting begins. In recent cycles, major candidates have opted out of the antiquated system because it imposes state-by-state spending caps now considered impractical.
“You might get the plane off the ground, but then you quickly run out of gas,” said Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic operative who served as the co-manager of the 2008 presidential campaign of former senator John Edwards (N.C.), who accepted matching funds and the accompanying spending limits.
Given the meager amount O’Malley has raised to this point, “it’s not a dumb thing” to seek matching funds, Trippi said. But, he added, “You die now or die later. Either way, it’s not going to end well.”
Other observers greeted the decision this week by O’Malley to move headquarters staffers to Iowa as the likely beginning of the end for a candidate who still lags far behind Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the polls and is rapidly running out of opportunities to change the narrative of the race.
“With hardly any income coming in, he’s got to restructure the campaign so he has the resources to survive until Iowa,” said a veteran Democratic consultant with ties to O’Malley but not on the payroll of his presidential bid.
The consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss O’Malley’s situation more freely, said that he would not be surprised to see the campaign start laying people off in coming weeks.
The possibilities in Iowa are grim: Because of the complicated rules governing the caucuses, O’Malley risks not getting on the scoreboard at all on Feb. 1 unless his support builds markedly. In most of the 1,682 precincts, a candidate must receive 15 percent backing or their performance is recorded as zero. O’Malley has remained in the single digits in Iowa polling.
Senior O’Malley aides cast their recent decisions as strategic moves, insisting that O’Malley, who has spent more time in Iowa than either of his rivals, is well-positioned to pull off a surprise there in February. A strong showing, they argue, could still propel the campaign forward, prompting fresh interest among donors and voters in the states that follow.
“We see that there is an opening for him in Iowa and the other early states, and we really want to focus our resources there,” said Lis Smith, a deputy campaign manager for O’Malley. “We’re doing this because we see an opportunity.”
Smith also suggested that the notion of financial difficulties was being overstated by people with a stake in seeing O’Malley lose.
Haley Morris, a spokeswoman for the campaign, acknowledged that it’s possible the redeployment of staffers from Baltimore will result in reduction of the overall size of O’Malley’s campaign staff but said that is not the aim.
Aides said O’Malley currently has more than 30 people in Iowa and another 10 or so in other states, in addition to his headquarters staff — significantly fewer than Clinton and Sanders.
Heading into October, O’Malley had raised about $3.3 million for his campaign and had only $805,987 left in the bank. Clinton and Sanders both had more than 30 times as much cash on hand — nearly $33 million for Clinton and more than $27 million for Sanders.
Dave Hamrick, O’Malley’s campaign manager, declined to discuss the particulars of how much matching funds might help O’Malley. Under the program, a candidate can essentially double donations that are less than $250.
Hamrick said the federal money could help bring “financial strength and stability” to O’Malley’s campaign, and he said that he is confident that O’Malley will have the money needed to compete in Iowa and beyond.
How robustly he can compete is still an open question. Clinton has been airing television ads in Iowa and New Hampshire since August, while Sanders took to the airwaves in both states at the beginning of this month.
Hamrick would not say whether O’Malley will have enough money to air TV ads in advance of the caucuses. “We’ll make that decision as we get closer,” he said.
Hamrick said the campaign has seen an uptick in fundraising since Saturday’s nationally televised debate from Des Moines, though he did not say by how much. It was the latest in a series of events that O’Malley had looked to as a potential turning point.
“Everyone has been saying this campaign needs a moment,” O’Malley said in a fundraising solicitation send out by e-mail that night. “They’ve been saying we need to break out. Well if you watched the debate tonight you saw it. I know I felt it on stage. This was our moment.”
Craig Engle, a Washington-based lawyer who specializes in campaign finance law, said seeking public matching funds could provide a little breathing room for O’Malley’s campaign, perhaps adding $1 million or more to his coffers. The Federal Election Commission approved an initial allocation Thursday of $100,000.
“The program is designed to do exactly what Governor O’Malley needs, which is provide a supplement to his receipts,” Engle said. “This is meant to help the little guy against the established candidates.”
Edwards, who took matching funds in 2008, dropped out of the race a few weeks after finishing second in Iowa, ahead of a large and costly slate of Super Tuesday contests.
Despite his challenges, O’Malley has continued to slog through Iowa, publicly appearing undaunted by the odds.
Earlier this week, he rolled out 28 new endorsements, including that of Tom Henderson, the longtime chairman of the Polk County Democrats. Polk County, where Des Moines is located, is home to nearly 1 in 5 registered Democrats in the state.
“There’s still time for him to make a good showing here,” Henderson said. “I have not met a single activist who’s met him who doesn’t like him. There are a lot of people who’ve been scratching their heads as to why his poll numbers haven’t gone up faster.”
Henderson said O’Malley should benefit from the timing of the caucuses. Eight years ago, the last time there was a competitive contest, the caucuses were held on Jan. 3. This time, candidates have an additional month to campaign, creating the potential for more movement at a time when people will be paying more attention, Henderson said.
Thus far, O’Malley hasn’t lacked exposure.
During the cycle, O’Malley has appeared in Iowa at 124 events over 45 days, according to tracking by the Des Moines Register. That’s significantly more than Clinton or Sanders.
Trevor Cornwell, a longtime O’Malley friend who has been helping him raise money in California, said some patience is warranted. In recent weeks, he said, O’Malley has become a bigger part of the conversation, a trend that continued with last weekend’s debate.
“In voters’ minds, before the debate, this was a two-person race,” Cornwell said. “It became a two-person race with a third person to take a look at.”
Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said O’Malley would probably have to finish ahead of Sanders in Iowa to stay relevant and have the resources to compete in the next states with nominating contests: New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
“He could finish third in Iowa and straggle in here, in which case he’d almost certainly finish third here in as well and then go home,” Scala said.
Scala said it makes sense for O’Malley to “go to Iowa, work hard for the next two and a half months there and hope for a Sanders collapse. That’s the best case for him.”