On the day Beto O’Rourke announced he was running for president, Jesus Simental helped him deliver an answer to the skepticism that had been swirling around the Texas Democrat’s presidential run. Simental chipped in $30 or $40 — a tiny piece of the staggering $6.1 million O’Rourke raised online that day, beating out even the first-day total from online fundraising behemoth Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“I’m disappointed in the result,” Simental said. “I don’t know enough about the political sciences to know why he hasn’t caught on. But it’s been disappointing to me.”
If he has to blame someone, Simental said, he blames the media. “They really wanted to damper any little flame that did exist. And then he had the whole rolling out his campaign again, and that’s been disappointing, too.”
BuzzFeed News spoke to more than a dozen small-dollar donors, like Simental, who said they gave O’Rourke money on the day he announced his run for president — in what was, for many of them, their first-ever political donation. Back then, they were excited, energized, and hopeful about the campaign.
As O’Rourke has slipped in the polls and out of the national spotlight, most echoed Simental’s feelings of disappointment, frustration, and confusion, even as they still supported O’Rourke’s candidacy. And many share a feeling that O’Rourke’s relative absence from national media at the beginning of his campaign is partly at fault for his struggles.
“Oh my God, I think he needs to get out there more,” said Cynthia Esparza, an El Paso resident who said that O’Rourke was the first political candidate she had ever given money to. “I love his philosophy of running for Senate. He was going county to county, and that’s great — but you keep doing that on a national level, and people are going to take your spotlight away.”
Who was taking O’Rourke’s spotlight? Esparza, who still backs O’Rourke, thought immediately of “Mayor Pete.”
Pete Buttigieg hung like a specter over almost all of O’Rourke’s small-dollar donors who spoke to BuzzFeed News. Two said they were now backing Buttigieg altogether, having switched over from O’Rourke, who had been their top choice when he announced. Nearly everyone else brought up Buttigieg, too.
It wasn’t that they no longer supported O’Rourke, many of his donors said: He was still many peoples’ top choice. It was that they thought he had lost ground to the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
“Everyone was so excited when [O’Rourke] got into the race, and now it’s Mayor Pete. I just wish there was a little more coverage, I guess,” said Lisa Cushman, a retired school admissions director from Massachusetts.
“The other day, a friend of mine said, ‘Where is Beto?’ And I said, ‘Clearly you’re not following him on Instagram,’” Cushman said. “But if you don’t follow him, you’re not really sure what’s happening.”
From the day he launched his presidential campaign in mid-March — with the exception of a Vanity Fair magazine cover story — O’Rourke’s team mostly kept him out of the national media spotlight. He didn’t do a CNN town hall until late May, a platform other major candidates took advantage of much earlier.
Instead, O’Rourke focused on a flurry of small campaign stops across 18 states, talking to hundreds of voters — mostly eschewing big rallies favored by many top Democratic contenders, like Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren. It was, his campaign has said, a deliberate choice to focus on grassroots organizing and connecting with voters, not the national spotlight.
On his first campaign trip, a phalanx of cameras followed him to stop after stop across Iowa, but O’Rourke avoided giving exclusive time to national press. On the second trip, there were fewer cameras, and then after that, fewer still. A campaign reset of sorts last month has seen O’Rourke making dramatically more cable news appearances, including the CNN town hall and regular interviews on Sunday news shows.
“We’re grateful for the hundreds of thousands of individuals across America who have already made small-dollar donations and joined us as we work to build the largest grassroots campaign this country has ever seen,” said Chris Evans, a spokesperson for O’Rourke’s campaign, in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “Refusing to accept a dime from PACs over the last five years, Beto always puts his full trust in people and will continue to run a campaign focused on relentlessly showing up everywhere, for everyone, every single day.”
Matthew Hunt, a manager at an automobile company in Kansas City, had been following O’Rourke throughout his Senate run. He liked “everything he heard,” he said: As someone who considered himself socially liberal and fiscally conservative, he liked O’Rourke’s message of unity and his place outside the political establishment. He saw O’Rourke, 46, as a candidate who could bring “generational change.”
Hunt gave $100 to O’Rourke on the day he launched. But the more he learned about Pete Buttigieg, the more Hunt found his allegiance shifting. He found Buttigieg “more inspiring than Obama.” Hunt, who is gay, loved that Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten, was a teacher, just like his fiancé. They drove together to South Bend, a nine-hour drive, to watch Buttigieg officially launch his campaign.
“I’ve always been involved in politics, but I’ve never done anything like that,” Hunt said. “I went to Iowa to see Beto, too, and it’s a different connection.”
It’s not that Hunt would be unhappy if O’Rourke won the nomination, he said. But there’s something different about Buttigieg. “In the Midwest, it’s incredible to see a gay candidate that’s gotten so far,” he said.
Tina Reid, a librarian and military spouse stationed with her husband in Okinawa, Japan, is “wavering” in her support for O’Rourke, she said, after donating to him in the early days of his campaign. It’s not that she doesn’t like him, she says: She loves how he rejects PAC money and the Washington establishment, and he reminds her a lot of Robert Kennedy.
But the Democratic field is so big, with so many big names, Reid said, that it has given her pause. “I wonder how he’s going to be able to compete in the long haul,” Reid said. “We have a ways to go, but he’s been falling behind, lately. It’s just too early to tell.”
O’Rourke’s campaign has fought the impression that it is falling behind in the primary. Despite sluggish poll numbers, it says it is building an organizing infrastructure — one of the biggest in Iowa, helmed by big-name hires from Barack Obama’s campaign — and connecting with individual voters in a way that will pay off in the primaries.
Reenie Montgomery, a donor who lives in Manchester, Iowa, said she was confident that O’Rourke’s brand of campaigning would help him in the state. “I like his strategy of going to the smaller venues and house parties,” she said. At those small events, she said, voters can see him for who he really is: “I think he’s genuine. You can tell he’s not put through the political machine — he’s being honest and saying how he feels.”
When O’Rourke first came to Iowa, in mid-March, he came to crowds of Democrats who were a world away from the skepticism of his campaign playing out on Twitter and in the media. Iowans said they were impressed by O’Rourke’s charisma, oratory, and grasp of policy — and mostly unaware of media snark about his candidacy after months of hand-wringing following his losing Senate bid.
Earlier in June, when O’Rourke returned to Iowa for the fifth time, the gap between the media and the sentiment on the ground in the first voting state had grown smaller.
Tom and Jerri, a couple who came to see O’Rourke in Williamsburg, Iowa, said they had come to the event out of curiosity. (They did not want their last names used, or their hometown, because “We’re the only Tom and Jerri in town.”) Tom was a fan of O’Rourke’s, but Jerri needed, she said, to be convinced.
“He ran a terrific race in Texas, and one thing I would be interested in knowing is, if this doesn’t work out well, if he sees it’s not working out well, would he consider running for the Senate in Texas?” Tom said before O’Rourke’s event began. “I was thinking about asking that.”
“He said that to me, and I said, ‘Don’t ask him that! He doesn’t think he’s going to lose!’” Jerri said, laughing.
“I expected he would be doing better,” Tom said, and Jerri agreed. “I’m surprised, but there are so many.”
After the event ended, Tom said he was more likely to vote for O’Rourke after seeing him speak. “He’s got the gift of gab, that’s for sure, but I think he’s sincere,” Tom said. “I was very impressed.”
But many of O’Rourke’s small donors said they were still behind him.
Susan Comeaux, a hairstylist in Lake Charles, Louisiana, said she gave O’Rourke $10 on the very first morning of his campaign — “All I could afford,” she said. It was the first time she’d ever donated to a political campaign. She had first seen O’Rourke in the viral video of him supporting NFL players’ right to kneel in protest, and she’d fallen for how he talked about the border and the issue of family separation.
“I hope it picks up speed,” Comeaux said of O’Rourke’s campaign. She knows O’Rourke is working nonstop, she said, but wants to see the campaign “pushing harder — getting the cameras out where they’re going to be.”
The night of O’Rourke’s official campaign launch, in Texas, Comeaux said she could only find O’Rourke’s speeches on social media. “I wanted to see it on TV,” she said. “I was flipping channels going, ‘Where is Beto?’”
Many of O’Rourke’s most loyal donors said they were moderates, even lifelong Republicans, who appreciated his record of bipartisanship. They didn’t see many other Democratic candidates, they said, who they thought could unite political parties the way they thought O’Rourke could.
Jason Strohbehn, who works in sales in Lincoln, Nebraska, is a registered Republican who found himself unable to get behind either major party candidate in 2016. He gave O’Rourke $50 — his first-ever political donation.
“It seems like he’s one of the few people right now in politics that’s putting country before party,” Strohbehn said. “Even in his announcement speech, I remember it was very much, ‘We need to get past this us vs. them mentality.’ That’s something a lot of people, and politicians in general, need to be a part of.”
Strohbehn said he plans to donate to O’Rourke again as the primary draws nearer. But he’s not sure O’Rourke will stay in the race.
“There’s talk now of him potentially going back and doing a Senate run again, which, if it stays with this many candidates in the presidential, it might be a better option for him, for now,” Strohbehn said. “He could do it again in four or eight years. It might be a better political career move for him.”
Esparza, the donor from El Paso, said O’Rourke was still her first choice. “I really love his message,” she said. “I’m just going to keep pushing his name. That’s why I’m doing this interview.”