(CN) – Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, who jumped into the presidential race in the aftermath of his powerhouse 2018 U.S. Senate campaign, has struggled in his transition to the national political stage and is now losing support among liberals and minorities in his home state, according to a new University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll.
But political experts believe the Democratic debates, the first round being held in Miami on Wednesday and Thursday, could help elevate one of the 20 candidates who exceeds audience expectations enough to break out of the crowded pack that includes three others who didn’t make the debate stage.
The poll released last week shows O’Rourke’s support among liberals in Texas slipping by 14 percentage points since a February poll to 45% overall. While O’Rourke also lost double-digit support among Hispanic voters and those that identify as Democrats, he still placed second in the Lone Star State, behind former Vice President Joe Biden.
“I think what you’re witnessing here is part of the cost of going from being the lone Democrat running against Ted Cruz in Texas, to being one of close to two dozen potential Democratic candidates in a Republican nominating contest,” said Joshua Blank, manager of polling and research for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Inevitably some people are going to be turned off as O’Rourke is forced to define himself in a more narrow, ideological way than he was required to when running for Senate in Texas,” Blank said.
Bolstered by his record-breaking fundraising and cross-generational appeal, O’Rourke, a three-term congressman who raised over $80 million from donors nationwide in his campaign against Cruz and came within 3 points of defeating the incumbent, entered the Democratic primary in true frontrunner fashion.
He appeared in a glitzy Vanity Fair cover article, which he later said he regretted, before headlining three rallies in Texas and raking in an eye popping $6.1 million in the campaign’s first 24 hours.
He’s attracted a growing number of high-level campaign staffers to his El Paso headquarters, an enthusiastic following of supporters, and a base of small-dollar donors, all of which can help him battle through a protracted nomination fight that has now drawn 24 candidates in what has become the largest nomination field assembled from either party.
But since his leap into presidential politics in March, O’Rourke’s standing in the field has been eclipsed by Democratic heavyweights including Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and the emergence of Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old openly gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana. O’Rourke ranks sixth nationally with 3.6%, according to the latest Real Clear Politics polling average.
Buttigieg breaking through at the expense of O’Rourke is one of two big, obvious shifts that have occurred so far in the Democratic primary, according to Nate Silver of the election analysis website FiveThirtyEight.
“One is that Elizabeth Warren has gained at Bernie Sander’s expense,” Silver wrote. “The other trend is that Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg have swapped places. At the end of March, O’Rourke was at 9.3 percent and Buttigieg was at 2.6 percent; now, it’s Buttigieg at 7.7 percent and O’Rourke at 3.6 percent.”
But the last 10 days have been mostly positive for O’Rourke as he stakes out more policy positions and Buttigieg faces the demands of being mayor in the wake of an officer-involved killing of a black man in his city, said Jerry Polinard, professor emeritus in the political science department at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
“For O’Rourke this is a good time for him. He’s received some [positive] media attention the last couple of days, and I think that will go on to build up right to Wednesday,” Polinard said. “Unfortunately for Buttigieg it’s just the exact opposite, he’s got a lot of media attention going into the debates that’s negative and I suspect he’ll have to take time to regain some momentum.”
O’Rourke is quick to defend his swinging poll numbers and there is plenty of time for him to convince voters that his unique blend of charisma and retail-style politics is the Democrats’ best hope of defeating President Donald Trump in 2020. The Iowa Caucuses are still eight months away and O’Rourke has been traveling the country introducing himself to voters and building grassroots support in early nominating states and Super Tuesday states.
“I’m relentless. This campaign is relentless. I’m going to fight for this country every single day and do everything it takes to bring everyone into this democracy,” O’Rourke said during a recent campaign swing through South Carolina.
O’Rourke’s campaign manager, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, told supporters in an online question-and-answer session held last week on Reddit that the campaign would not let low polling numbers be a distraction.
“Polls at this stage are a snapshot in time,” O’Malley Dillon, an Obama campaign veteran, wrote to supporters in the sort-of-live virtual town hall. “If we let our campaign strategy be dictated by them, we wouldn’t be building the campaign we need to win. The more people get to know Beto, the more people will see in him what we all see in him.”
A spokesman for O’Rourke’s campaign declined to comment on what debate preparations the former El Paso congressman was taking on before he and Warren appear center-stage alongside Sens. Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, fellow Texan Julian Castro, and five other Democrats for the first round of televised debates airing on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo on Wednesday night.
The night could provide a critical moment for O’Rourke to reinvigorate his campaign and prove to a national electorate that he belongs among the top tier of Democratic candidates.