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Martin O'Malley's problem with running against Hillary and Bernie

Martin O’Malley is facing a double bind: He can’t wage the kind of campaign he’s naturally suited for, leaving him stuck to run as something he’s not.

Martin O’Malley is facing a double bind: He can’t wage the kind of campaign he’s naturally suited for, leaving him stuck to run as something he’s not.

The former Maryland governor announced his candidacy for president in Baltimore today, two days after the latest national survey put his support in the race for the Democratic nomination at just 1%. This is not some statistical fluke. In a total of 53 public polls dating back to December 2012, O’Malley has tallied more than 2% exactly once, in a March 2014 survey that put him at 4%. In nine polls, he’s clocked in at 0%.

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This lack of traction comes even though O’Malley checks off a lot of boxes for Democrats. His gubernatorial record includes the enactment of a state-level Dream Act, strict gun control, gay marriage, and the abolition of the death penalty. So he can — and does — brag that he’s delivered on the party’s agenda in a way that no other would-be Obama successor (or, for that matter, Obama himself) has.

He’s also touting a populist economic message that’s very much in sync with the liberal grassroots: hiking the minimum wage, reinstating Glass-Steagall and expanding Social Security. And he’s been preparing for this moment for years, traversing the country as the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association during the 2012 cycle, and snagging a plum speaking role at that year’s Democratic convention and spending the last year on the rubber chicken circuit. And for all of that, he’s essentially not registering in the polls.

Granted, you could argue that O’Malley shouldn’t be registering in the polls at this point. Not many voters are paying attention yet, he hasn’t been on the air with any ads, and he’s been crowded out of the media spotlight by Hillary Clinton. Plus, national polls don’t mean that much when all of the action this year will be in the early primary and caucus states — where O’Malley still has plenty of time to make inroads and position himself for a breakthrough performance. So sure, maybe it’s as simple as that, and a few months from now we’ll be talking about his surprising traction.

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But the situation may be much worse than that for O’Malley. After all, it’s not as if no one is paying attention to the Democratic race — not when Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders managed to score 15% in the same poll this week. This marked the second time Sanders has broken into double-digits, and his support, while still meager compared to Clinton’s, has clearly been on the uptick over the last year.

This points to the first part of O’Malley’s double bind. Clinton’s dominance when it comes to endorsements, campaign cash and press attention means that the only way to beat her is as an insurgent. But Sanders, a genuine political radical who has thrived outside the traditional party structure, is far better suited to this role than O’Malley, who sports the résumé of a more conventional political climber. Sanders’ four-decade political career amounts to a purist’s crusade against inequality, wealth concentration and corporate power, lending him credibility with the true believers of the left that’s virtually impossible to match. So while O’Malley and Sanders now occupy much of the same ideological turf, it’s only Sanders who is generating excitement with the base. 

A much more comfortable role for O’Malley would be as a candidate of the establishment — someone who appeals to the party’s powerful and pragmatic leaders, who are more interested in backing and gaining influence with a winner. With his solid credentials (two terms leading a major state and two more running one of the country’s largest cities) and connections with elected officials, donors and interest group leaders, O’Malley would have a shot at playing this role in a different field. But Clinton’s presence makes it impossible right now. She’s locking down more support than any non-incumbent frontrunner before her. There’s just not room for another candidate of the establishment.

RELATED: O’Malley stands by record as mayor of Baltimore

O’Malley’s political ambition figures to complicate things further, since he presumably hopes to emerge from this campaign as a viable contender for the future. But that will only make it tougher for him to rival Sanders as a Hillary alternative, since every step O’Malley takes in Sanders’ direction now will pull him further from the party establishment – the same establishment O’Malley would want with him in 2020 or 2024.

O’Malley has been angling to run for president for a long time, but it’s hard to see the opening for him here. And it’s not hard to see the downside: If he never gets any traction, then he can say goodbye not just to any chance of winning in 2016, but ever.