Beto O’Rourke Is Everywhere. Why Don’t More Texas Voters Know Him?

O’Rourke continues to nip at Ted Cruz’s heels in the latest poll, even if a third of the state’s voters are unfamiliar with him.

The crowd listens to Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) giving a speech at Scholz Garten on April 1, 2017 in Austin, Texas. O'Rourke announced his plan to run for Ted Cruz's Senate seat on Friday and launched his campaign with a four-city tour of Texas.

Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke goes viral in an internet video defending NFL players taking a knee in protest of the racial divide in America. Beto goes viral skateboarding to get a Whataburger. Beto is on the liberal Bill Maher show. He verbally spars with conservative Fox commentator Tucker Carlson. Beto is the darling of the D.C. political media.  He draws crowds everywhere he goes. He has more yard signs than mushrooms in cow pies. Heck, he even got on the cover of Texas Monthly for half the January press run. (Incumbent Republican Senator Ted Cruz got the other half of the run.)

Yet, here we are again with a new poll showing O’Rourke trailing Cruz by only a few percentage points. Victory looks possible. But then there’s that nagging number that has been showing up in all the surveys about the U.S. Senate race in Texas: a lot of Texans still don’t know much of anything about Beto O’Rourke.

When the new NBC News/Marist Poll asked Texans whether they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of O’Rourke, 44 percent of the adults in the sample and 36 percent of the registered voters who were surveyed said they were unsure of O’Rourke or had never heard of him. Overall, 41 percent of the registered voters had a positive view of him, and 23 percent a negative view—a very good ratio if it weren’t for that high number showing a lack of knowledge about him.

Cruz doesn’t have that problem. A mere 10 percent of those surveyed did not have an opinion of Cruz. But among those who did, Cruz had a 49 percent positive rating and a 41 percent negative rating. That high negative explains a lot about why the horse race number has Cruz at 49 percent and O’Rourke at 45 percent among the respondents to this poll. With a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points, that means the survey could be declared a tie.

O’Rourke is riding high on voter distaste for Cruz as well as for President Trump. The challenge for O’Rourke is that, as we enter the fall general election season, Cruz still has the ability to create a negative image of O’Rourke through television advertising. Because so many people do not know anything about the Democrat, it might stick.

One of the big questions that comes from the survey is why Cruz keeps saying he wants President Trump to campaign in Texas. The registered voters surveyed are statistically tied on whether they think Trump is doing a good job, but when it comes to personal approval, 50 percent of the respondents have an unfavorable view of Trump and 42 percent have a favorable view. A Trump tour of Texas might just as easily inspire additional voter turnout for O’Rourke as it rallies the Republican base for Cruz.

The race for governor appears to be over, with 56 percent of registered voters surveyed backing incumbent Republican Greg Abbott, while just 37 percent support Democrat Lupe Valdez. Changing that dynamic would be almost impossible because Abbott is viewed positively by 58 percent of the registered voters surveyed.

That brings us back to the question of how O’Rourke gets all this attention and still has so many people not know much about him.

First, look at the numbers on the viral video on the NFL. That aired on the Now This Twitter account, with 2.05 million followers. That’s a pretty good start on getting (at publication of this article) 12.7 million views. But because of the antipathy to President Trump in places like California and New York, in some ways this is a national election, and a lot of the people who watch a video like that do not live in Texas. A viral video outside of Texas might help O’Rourke’s fundraising, but it doesn’t necessarily put him in touch with Texas voters.

But then there is another factor: the Marist poll was conducted between August 12 and 16. That’s before the Now This News video went viral. And O’Rourke did not launch his $1.3 million television advertising campaign until August 15. None of that is reflected in the survey. Even with that, O’Rourke’s commercial is about building a bandwagon effect of support, showing O’Rourke traveling the state and meeting with large crowds, saying he wants to represent everyone, Democrat and Republican. But the ad doesn’t say what office he is seeking until the very end, nor does it give any of his policy positions. At best, it will improve voter awareness of him, although it is questionable whether it will move the needle in the next poll that asks whether voters have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Beto O’Rourke.

What the surveys have been telling me this summer is that O’Rourke is a candidate with great potential. He also is a bubble that could easily get popped.

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