By Katie Gagliano
“It was so quiet in here, I didn’t realize there were this many of you,” former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley joked at a campaign event at the West Des Moines Public Library Saturday.
Small crowds are not uncommon for O’Malley’s events. His campaign has suffered from a lack of name recognition and low polling numbers behind Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. In fact, just one person attended an O’Malley meet-and-greet Monday.
In a Dec. 18 poll by Public Policy Polling, O’Malley was polling at 9 percent nationally, with Clinton at 56 percent and Sanders at 28 percent. Even in Maryland, O’Malley polled at 7 percent behind Clinton’s 56 percent and Sanders’ 23 percent in a November poll by The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore.
O’Malley’s campaign suffered another setback Thursday when he failed to qualify for the Ohio Democratic primary. The Ohio secretary of state’s office invalidated 403 of O’Malley’s 1,175 signatures, leaving him short of the 1,000 signatures required to qualify.
O’Malley shows no signs of stopping despite the uphill battle his campaign faces. The former governor recognizes his underdog status and remains positive about his chances.
“Iowans have a penchant for upsetting the apple cart, and of the three of us left in this race, I’m still the only one who can upset this apple cart,” O’Malley said.
The candidate’s enduring positivity draws volunteers and supporters to his campaign.
Joe O’Hern, O’Malley’s caucus director, has eight years of political experience in Iowa. O’Hern said there’s something different about O’Malley that inspired him to join the campaign.
“This is the type you sign up for the right reasons,” O’Hern said, “because it’s a hard fight and it’s the right fight to have. You’re here because you believe in Martin O’Malley.”
O’Malley’s staffers are working to share this narrative with Iowans. The campaign is visiting strategic precincts throughout the state and targeting guaranteed caucus goers to bolster support for O’Malley, O’Hern said.
Drawing supporters isn’t the only challenge facing O’Malley. The campaign is fighting a national media narrative of a two-person race for the Democratic nomination, O’Hern said.
“The Iowans don’t believe it,” O’Hern said. “They know it’s a three-person race.”
O’Malley’s focus on issues and executive experience makes him more than qualified as a candidate. He has played a key role in politics and brought prominent issues to the table, O’Hern said.
“He’s shaped a lot of the national conversations happening in our country and the party,” O’Hern said.
O’Malley shared his vision with more than 50 attendees Saturday, highlighting climate change, student debt, and gun control as key issues. O’Malley set the bar high, vowing to cut the country’s gun violence deaths in half by 2025 and generate 100 percent of the country’s electricity using renewable energy by 2050.
“These are the ambitions that are worthy of a truly great people,” O’Malley said.
The former governor also showcased his foreign policy experience when addressing a question from the audience. O’Malley called himself the first post-911 mayor and governor running for president, and said he would eliminate terrorist safe havens, dial-up diplomacy around the world and mobilize troops in the Middle East as a last resort.
Audience members at the West Des Moines Public Library seemed receptive of O’Malley’s message.
Cathy VanGilder, 71, of West Des Moines, Iowa, is a retired special education teacher leaning toward supporting O’Malley. VanGilder said she was more convinced of her stance after seeing him in person.
“I think he’s a fabulous speaker,” VanGilder said. “He’s believable, his presence was good and it seems like he respects people.”
Pamela Ballard, 49, an art teacher from Des Moines, Iowa, agreed. She committed to caucus for O’Malley after the event.
“You get a better feel for a candidate in person,” Ballard said. “I liked what he had to say and thought he was thoughtful and articulate about the issues.”
Ballard’s 19-year-old daughter, Sierra, a political science major at Iowa State University, is also an O’Malley supporter. Both see momentum building for the candidate.
“At a Bernie Sanders event someone asked us if we thought we had a chance,” Sierra Ballard said. “With the way Iowa goes, it could easily flip.”