Martin O’Malley’s Messaging Challenges

omalleyMartin O’Malley.

OK. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight Twitter account was very quick on Saturday, right after Mr. O’Malley announced that he is going to challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, to point out that Mr. O’Malley has “essentially zero support” from Democratic office-holders and has just two percent support in Iowa, New Hampshire and national primary polls – far worse than Barack Obama eight years ago.

Long shot, right? Absolutely.

Numbers are numbers. But, on the word side, Mr. O’Malley’s entrance into the race could be more interesting than we think – if only for the messaging challenges the former Maryland governor faces. Setting aside the polling numbers for a moment, let’s look at what Mr. O’Malley’s record actually provides in terms of potential “marketable” messages.

His two terms as governor of Maryland included several achievements that he will repeatedly articulate as he attempts to position himself to the left of Mrs. Clinton. On the campaign trail, he will talk about a “sensible rebalancing” of wealth and he will tell us that he:

  • supported legalizing same-sex marriages
  • came out in favor of tough gun restrictions
  • eliminated the death penalty
  • raised the minimum wage
  • backed tax increases

Clearly, Mr. O’Malley wants and needs to position himself to the left of Mrs. Clinton and – in a vacuum – strong talking points based on these accomplishments would do just that. Unfortunately for him, Mrs. Clinton has been saying many similar or close-to-similar statements — the system punishes the middle class; immigration changes should be even broader; minimum wages need to be raised, etc.

And let’s not forget that Bernie Sanders, the independent Senator from Vermont who also will be in the Democratic primaries, is more of a natural fit at that end of the political spectrum. So Mr. O’Malley may find that his Maryland accomplishments – his liberal pedigree, really – do not really differentiate him in any meaningful way.

He likely will have more success with strong messages driving home his opposition to a pending Pacific Rim trade deal and the Keystone XL pipeline and his support for expanding Social Security benefits. Mrs. Clinton has been tap-dancing on and/or avoiding these issues, and they remain open as meaningful talking point for Mr. O’Malley.

While his specific issue-by-issue messaging probably still needs to be refined, Mr. O’Malley’s messaging strategy – from a macro point of view – already is clear.

“The presidency is not a crown to be passed back and forth … between two royal families,” he said in his announcement speech Saturday, a statement designed to simultaneously knock both Mrs. Clinton and Jeb Bush. But even this talking point raises some questions as Mr. O’Malley of course was the second sitting governor two elections ago to endorse Mrs. Clinton of then-Sen. Barack Obama. “She is ready today,” Mr. O’Malley said at an event in Annapolis. “She is ready to lead.”

The candidate was reminded of his endorsement in late March in a Sunday morning television appearance. He responded — cleverly, perhaps — that Mrs. Clinton was the best prepared candidate “for those times,” but then quickly: “I think our country always benefits from new leadership and perspective.”

Generation Forward, the super PAC created by Damian O’Doherty, a long-time O’Malley backer, also is emphasizing age – Mr. O’Malley is 52, Mrs. Clinton is 67 and Mr. Sanders is 73.

“We believe that Governor O’Malley is the best candidate to appeal to younger generations and the issues they care about,” said Ron Boehmer, a spokesman for the super PAC and Mr. O’Malley’s spokesman when he was in the Maryland statehouse.

Adding that Mr. O’Malley represents “new leadership” and “new ideas,” Mr. Boehmer says the governor’s record on same-sex marriage and education costs are important examples of how he will appeal to younger Americans. Mr. O’Malley, himself, has referenced a need for a “new generation.”

Mrs. Clinton was quick to respond to Mr. O’Malley’s announcement on Saturday, and her Twitter account said, “Welcome to the race, Gov. O’Malley. Looking forward to discussing strong families and communities. -H.”

Clearly, she gets an A for her quick response, but the inclusion of “strong families” in her response – from a messaging standpoint – probably is wording that she will want to stay away from as the primary season (and even the general election) roll out.

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