Martin O'Malley is, next to Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, the third Democratic candidate in the 2016 US elections. Even though, he seems to have it all, he does neither attrack voters nor media - attention. This paper explains why.
Becoming the president of the United States of America is a big deal that draws everyone’s attention, both American and non-American, at least according to the Americans. And so the battle begins roughly a year and a half before the actual election. The Democratic and Republican Partiy announce their candidates and the voters prepare themselves for a series of political debates, visits and games. For the Democrats there is a new guy in town, named Martin O’Malley.
Next to Hilary Clinton, an old hand in politics, Bernie Sanders takes his place. And then, hanging somewhere between one to three percent of the votes, there is Martin O’Malley (Barabak, 2015). ‘Who is this person, I have never heard of him?’ some might say, but he truly exists. Whatever it takes to become the president of the United States, Martin O’Malley surely does not seem to have it. Between his fellow candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, who both either have a big mouth or a big name, he has become the third wheel that nobody really seems to like or even recognise
Whatever it takes to become the president of the United States, Martin O’Malley surely does not seem to have it.
Nevertheless, for an outsider he seems to be the perfect candidate for the presidential elections. With two terms as a governor of Maryland, seven years as mayor of Baltimore and no big scandals on his name, he seems to have the experience and the confidence to be a successful candidate for the Democratic party. He also addresses prominent issues that Democrats like, such as gun reform, debt-free college education and immigration reform, offering real solutions which he, as he claims, already made in his former state of Maryland. He is the man who already did in Maryland what others claim they will do if they become president. A man of willpower! Furthermore, in the speeches he gives, he refers to his wife and kids, making sure to establish himself as a family man, which is a clever strategy in a Christian country in which family is considered as most important (Separation of Corporation and State, 2015). Still, despite having all the right things to win the elections, he is in the single digit-zone of the polls.
For this paper, I researched the reasons for the stagnation of the success of Martin O’Malley in his presidential campaign, especially as he seems to be a perfect candidate. In line with Lempert & Silverstein (2011) in their book Creatures of politics: Media, message and the American presidency, I stress the relationship between issue and image within politics in order to analyse politics. I find this theoretical framework useful to examine success and, in the case of O'Malley, to explain his non-success. I have analysed the way his message is constructed, both by himself, by important media and by the voters.
O'Malley's message: The Loser
Ideally, one thinks, politics should be about the issues that matter to the country and how to solve them. It should be about content. But one cannot deliver the message without also communicating one's identity in a (non-)verbal way. And so, having the right image plays a significant role in succeeding in politics. The right image makes people remember you and your statements. Furthermore, as the issues cannot be tackled without also communicating an image, the message delivered by O’Malley is both the issue and his image (Lempert & Silverstein, 2011).
And so the image O’Malley presents is crucial for his success. But it seems that O’Malley has not chosen the right time to put himself in the presidential elections. Compared to Hillary Clinton his name recognition is nearly zero and Bernie Sanders’ socialist campaign is attracting more and more Democratic voters. O’Malley really needs to stand out with his image in order to gain more popularity and to defeat both Clinton and Sanders. But, most of the people will have never heard about O’Malley before, and so he will have to deal will a lot of first impressions.
These first impressions mostly happen through traditional media, such as television and print news. For instance, a report of the Democratic debate on television. If this is a first impression, seeing how others react to him will influence the way viewers feel about him. Constructing your message is not just a task for you alone, the way others react on you, write about you and behave around you is of great importance as well (Blommaert, 2005). And sadly for O’Malley, he is not represented very well in these situations.
Two against one
In November 2015, during the first large Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton constantly made him look like her little helper. When O’Malley criticizes her way of dealing with IS, Clinton reacts by mentioning the fact that O’Malley has helped her during her presidential campaign in 2008, drawing the attention away from the critics. By saying: ‘I was very pleased when governor O’Malley endorsed me for president in 2008 and I enjoyed his strong support in that campaign, she stresses her power over him. He was once a Clinton-lover and she knows how to use this fact against him.Making O’Malley look like he cannot criticize her because he helped her before, and due to the moderator not giving him time to respond, the damage is done.
In the two following debates, O’Malley tends to get more politically aggressive towards mostly Clinton and Sanders. He tries to reveal their flaws in the past, mostly regarding Clinton, with a peak in the third debate. In this debate he accuses both Clinton and Sanders of a ‘flip-flopping, political approach of Washington' regarding defeating the NRA. A very daring and political thing to say, that people would cheer for, but the popularity of Sanders and Clinton is too strong for this to work. Sanders and Clinton react on it by saying he has to ‘calm down a bit’ and needs to ‘tell the truth’ and the Washington Post does noteven count it as a key-moment in their report on the debate. O'Malley's message is not being picked up. The way Sanders and Clinton react on O’Malley is key in this. By not looking offended or insecure, but instead telling him to calm down, O’Malley does not become the strong, critical and brave politician he wants to be but instead an overly aggressive liar. In this situation, Clinton and Sanders are the ones who exclude O’Malley by not taking him seriously. Somewhat like the boy who always gets bullied in class.
The reason for this can be found in the fact that O’Malley is not (fully) accepted, or taken seriously, to be a presidential candidate as he does not fit in the dominating hegemony. Within every society there is a dominant culture with ideas on how to act in certain circumstances, which determines wanted behavior, created by significant people in society. Hegemony produces a so-called soft power over the people (Blommaert, 2005). If one doesn't talk or behave in line with the hegemony, one can be misunderstood. O' Malley is too much associated with the Democratic establishment to be credible as an outsider and not famous and powerful enough to be a thread for Clinton. He is an in-between candidate in a time were the economic crisis created a climate of resistance.
A national trend in the media
In a similar manner, the media follows and also refines his message. This is significant as the media itself is of great importance forspreading O'Malley's politics. They are essential creators of his message. Both traditional and social media construct an image of O’Malley that influences the way people think of him. Within the traditional media, it is interesting to take a look at what is reported in his state of birth Washington DC, as the candidates traditionally are very popular in their own states (Enten, 2015). But, as O’Malley has been more active in the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland as a mayor and a governor for the last couple of years, The Baltimore Sun is an interesting medium to analyse as well.
If one searches for articles about Martin O’Malley in The Washington Post, a quasi-pro-Democratic paper (Howell, 2008), the first result is an article about Clinton and Sanders. Still, there are some articles about O’Malley not having enough signatures to get into Ohio’s primary ballot (Wagner, 2015), an article about how he will pursuit his campaign (Wagner, 2015) and an article about his need of a ‘breakthrough performance’ (Wagner, 2015) in order to gain attention. What is interesting is that these articles all mention O’Malley’s low poll-numbers and failing popularity. The media creates the message of a loser: O'Malley does not preform very well, he has trouble finding enough signatures and does not score in the polls.
Thus, constantly naming O’Malley’s low poll-numbers, him being the third wheel and not report more positive about him, will ultimately make potential voters think a vote for him is a vote for a loser.
The paper of his current home state, The Baltimore Sun, is more active on reporting about Martin O’Malley’s attempt to get to the top. With an overview after every Democratic debate or special event about ‘What they’re saying about Martin O’Malley’ (Welsh, 2015), The Baltimore Sun tries to sketch a neutral image with both negative and positive quotes from different news features. Ironically, the What they’re saying about Martin O’Malley of the first Democratic debate, is accompanied with a picture of[i], Sanders and Clinton, laughing. O'Malley is not to be seen in that picture. This is very revealing, especially given the fact that it is an article specifically about O’Malley. Like it wouldn’t attract readers if he was in it. Plus, the fact that Sanders and Clinton are laughing seems like they are laughing at O’Malley.
As O’Malley has been very active in politics in the state of Maryland and the city of Baltimore, the impression this newspaper gives about him is crucial. If his own homebase is not convinced, why should other states vote for him. Seeing that only three percent of this state will vote for him, The Baltimore Sun is not being very positive about him and the riots that broke out in April 2015 (Berlinger, 2015) do not give off a very good and steady image of O’Malley. So if Marylanders do not like O’Malley, then why would the rest of America? (Enten, 2015).
The same goes for an article about O’Malley and the way he speaks. This article is also accompanied by an image of Sanders and Clinton laughing at the first democratic debate. Content-wise, this article is negative, stating that ‘the way he says things (…) induces a cringe' (Rodricks, 2015) and feels too practiced. Moreover, an article about what the presidential candidates should do in order to win (Kapur e.a. 2016), states that O’Malley needs to hope for both Sanders and Clinton to be abducted by aliens to make a shot at the presidential seat. Furthermore, this piece has a picture of Sanders and his campaign, raising the question whetherBaltimore leaves O’Malley for Sanders. All in all, the Baltimore Sun does not seem to do very much for the former mayor. All media seems to produce the same message: O'Malley is a loser.
What is more important is the fact that the television is not helping either. The moderators during the debates on television are not favoring O’Malley. On the contrary, they tend to give more time to Sanders and Clinton, leaving O’Malley to be third-placed. Furthermore, they interrupt him multiple times and often do not let him finish his answers with a fine one-liner. Also, Jimmy Fallon once criticized him on his Tonight Show, a very popular American late night show, about the situation in Baltimore. Additionally, the pro-democratic network MSNBC does not pay much attention to O’Malley, as a result of which many Democratic voters stay uninformed about him.
Sadly for O’Malley, it seems there is no medium that is pro-O’Malley and he himself seems incapable to put himself in the spotlights.
But now, how do the potential voters (re)create the message of Martin O’Malley? In order to find out, social media is a very good way of analysing reactions and opinions as it is a small and easy step to publish one's own opinion. And so, Twitter and Facebook are the ones.
Martin O’Malley has a Twitter-account where he has a disappointing 119.000 followers (Clinton 5 million, Sanders 1 million (November 2015)) but nevertheless there are plenty of tweets about him.
The influencial American football player Tim Barnes even thinks we are all imagining O’Malley
Especially in the period of late December, when the third Democratic debate took place and O’Malley tweeted: 'Remember, Jesus was a refugee too' (Wagner, 2015)., Twitter was all over him. Analysing the tweets about him in that time, one has to conclude that his message is rather negative.People tend to joke about him being the third wheel (Wagner, 2015) and the influencial American football player Tim Barnes even thinks we are all imagining O’Malley (Brennan & Lomansky, 1993).
Furthermore, a Twitter bomb exploded when O’Malley tried to speak to his Christian voters by saying Jesus was a refugee too in a reaction he gave on the speech of Donald Trump on refugees. Not long after the first comment (Welsh, 2015) were made on this tweet, the catchphrase: ‘In desperation, Martin O’Malley uses the Bible to bash Donald Trump’[ii] is being used. The addition of 'in desperation' strongly gives a negative vibe to both the message and O’Malley, stating this was his last hope for success or so. Also, once in a while someone tends to tweet about the unpopularity of O’Malley and how sad it is he does not have a chance. By mentioning this over and over again, and with no counter reactions visible, a negative image is being sustained.
Even more interesting are the comments on the Facebook page of Martin O’Malley as there seem to be a lot of Bernie Sanders voters on his page[iv].
Even people who both like O’Malley’s ideas and personality, will still vote for Sanders. This might have to do with the already mentioned fear ofallegedly throwing away your vote, as the duel between Clinton and Sanders is probably more important. Thus, the hegemony presented and created by the media and the other Democratic candidates is followed by the people.
Martin O’Malley, him, himself and he
Eventually, everyone has sort of the same opinion on Martin O’Malley, and this is not a very positive one. O’Malley seems not to be taken seriously by anyone, making him an outsider. But the question arises, is O’Malley simply the victim of the media, which secretly yearns for a duel between Sanders and Clinton, or is there also blame to be put on O’Malley himself? Is he just at the wrong time in the wrong place, or is there essentially something wrong in the way O’Malley presents himself?
Even though, the media tends to drive the Democratic party into a duel and influences the polls by doing so andthey needed a reason to exclude specifically O’Malley. With Clinton being the renowned name, there has been a moment to decide who would be the one competing with her. It would have been easy for the media to exclude Bernie Sanders at this point, as he presents himself as a socialist, a term which is not very popular in the United States.
If O’Malley would have been the perfect candidate, he might have been included in the duel. As this is not the case, O’Malley cannot be perfect. This is also confirmed by the fact that his popularity in his current home state Maryland, is extremely low. The people who have dealt with him politically, do not like him. Thus, it has to do something with the way O’Malley is messaging.
Within politics, it is important to have the right image as I mentioned before, but also style plays a significant role. The distinction between image and style, is that the second creates the first. Style can be influenced and therefore a right image can be create (Silverstein, 2003). Therefore, it is everything for instance a presidential candidate is. His clothes, his language-/body use, his discourse. Thus, I have looked at the style O’Malley is using during his presidential campaign.
In order to analyse his style, I have looked at his website, his Facebook page, his tweets and his performances in public events. Except for some inconsistencies in his presentation of himself as a family man[iv], there is nothing outstandingly wrong in his presentation on these media. He says the right things, quotes important people etc. His website has the wanted three color in his design[v], he dresses neat, he sometimes tries to connect a hand gesture to a quote[vi]
Something he could advance is the quantity and the quality of his tweets and posts. His tweets and posts are too careful and nice and are not making a memorable statement to his manner. Furthermore, he does not respond to the people that are for instance tweeting about whether he exists or not. By not doing so, the anonymity of O’Malley is sustained. If he were to comment on this by saying: ‘Well, I think I so… Come and see for yourself at my event (….)’ he would put himself out there and show more courage.
This caution is enforced by another factor. This factor might be the , key in the non-success of O’Malley. Because of this aspet, the media excludes him and the other candidates do not take him seriously. It is simply the way O’Malley speaks. When he speeches at debates or other public events, he tends to talk very fragile like he can burst into tears at any moment[vii]. He does not come across as a person who is powerful or strict, but someone who gets on your nerves if you hear him too long. Or a person who is careful and cautious (Kurtz, 2015). It is also the reason why voters make fun of him on social media. This kind of speaking is not a very good quality if you are trying to convince people that you will be a good leader of the United States. Moreover, a world leader, as O’Malley puts the position of the president of the United States. Leadership needs brave decisions, and O’Malley is not presenting that.
Martin O’Malley for president?
In conclusion, Martin O’Malley is not 'on message'. He wants to be president, but creates a message that does not align with that function. He communicates himself as a cautious, nice helper, a loser even. The Democratic candidates and the media both create the idea he can not be taken seriously. The media is not paying much attention to him and when they do it is mostly on his failures or his flaws. Given the fact that O’Malley severely needs the media for gaining popularity and name recognition in order to stand a chance against the renowned Hillary Clinton, the negativity does not help. Not even the newspaper of his current home state, The Baltimore Sun, is positive about him.
Furthermore, the other candidates do not do much for him either. Especially Hillary Clinton, who O’Malley helped during her 2008 campaign. She presents him as a helper who can not truly criticise on her, as he was a dedicated one. She sometimes also seems to be creating a force with Sanders in mocking him for his comments on both of them. As Clinton is well known and O’Malley is not. The way she reacts on him is crucial for the representation of O’Malley. If she does not take him seriously, why would the voters?
Then, the voters themselves. According to Twitter O’Malley does not seem to exist, is a third wheel or has no chance. Furthermore, only his failures and flaws seem to get attention, such as his tweet on Jesus or the fact that only one man showed up for an event in Ohio. Just like the media, the potential voters do not like O’Malley.
But how come he is not likeable? He seems to have everything to be a good president, he has the right experiences and the looks. What is not to like about O’Malley?
Well, sadly enough for him, the style he uses in his verbal performances does not help. When Martin O’Malley speaks in public about the changes he will make as a new president, he speaks with a cracking, almost sad voice. He constantly builds up to a moment that he has to break out in to tears, but he does not come to the latter. And this is not what the voters want in their new president, so it seems. They want a brave leader with courage in his voice. Ready to make big decisions and changes.
Ultimately, O’Malley does not have it all. He has the experience, he is a family man, he looks good and has a nice website, but he misses one important thing.
Ultimately, O’Malley does not have it. He has the experience, but he misses one important thing. The decisiveness he has on paper, is not coming through in his speaking performance and therefore in his style. An important factor if you want to attract voters. You have to stand out above the rest.
Even though it seems as if he has read the book 'How to become the president of the United States' and has checked all the boxes, but has forgotten one important thing: That being a president means being someone who is verbally strong and decisive. Thus, Martin O’Malley for president is only a dream that can come true, if he were to visit a speech therapist.
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Wagner, J. (2015b) Democratic race could still ‘turn on a dime,’ O’Malley insists after latest debate. The Washington Post. December 20, 2015.
Wagner, J. (2015 c) O’Malley broadens exposure but unlikely to soar after first debate. The Washington Post, October 14, 2015.
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[i] See appendix figure II
[ii] See appendix figure III, IV, V
[iii] See appendix figure VI
[iv] See appendix figure VII, VIII
[v] See appendix figure IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV
[vi See appendix figure XV, XVI
[vii] See appendix figure XVII
[vii]See appendix figure XVIII