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2020 presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke is a media darling, but many Americans still don't have an opinion of him

Key Points
  • The newest Democratic presidential candidate, Beto O'Rourke, has lower name recognition than some of his well-known competitors despite a media frenzy surrounding his 2018 Senate campaign and 2020 presidential launch.
  • That's not necessarily a bad thing for the former Texas congressman, who has a chance to define himself with voters as he tries to take on President Donald Trump next year.
Former Democratic Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke laughs as with Oprah Winfrey presses him to make the announcement that he is running for president during a live interview on a Times Square stage at "Oprah's SuperSoul Conversations from Times Square," Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, in New York.
Kathy Willens | AP

Beto O'Rourke seems to be everywhere. But many voters still have no opinion of the newest Democratic presidential candidate.

The former congressman from Texas launched his presidential bid on Thursday morning. The fanfare surrounding his announcement echoed the media frenzy seen during his upstart run for Senate in Texas against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz last year — a race O'Rourke lost by about 2.5 percentage points.

The magazine Vanity Fair released an O'Rourke cover story Wednesday night with images from famed photographer Annie Leibovitz. Cable networks MSNBC and CNN carried O'Rourke's comments from his first official campaign stop in Iowa on Thursday morning.

The ex-House member has enjoyed a level of celebrity rarely seen for a politician who represented a small corner of Texas. Even so, he has some work to do to become as well-known in key states as top-tier Democratic presidential candidates such as former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

That's not necessarily a bad thing for O'Rourke as he tries to take on President Donald Trump in next year's election.

Forty-three percent of Democratic primary voters say they have a favorable view of O'Rourke, versus 9 percent who say they see him unfavorably, according to a Morning Consult poll taken last week. But 49 percent of those polled responded that they either have not heard of him, or know of him but have no opinion. (The numbers add up to 101 percent, which appears to be a result of rounding.)

In the key early caucus state of Iowa, 36 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers said they are not sure how they view O'Rourke, according to a Des Moines Register poll earlier this month. Meanwhile, 56 percent of registered voters from all parties in the general election swing state of Florida said they have not heard enough to have an opinion of O'Rourke, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday.

For comparison, here is the percentage of respondents to the Quinnipiac survey who said they did not know enough to form a view of other Democratic candidates. It includes the net favorability ratings for each candidate in Florida, which is the percentage of respondents who say they have a favorable view of the candidate minus the percentage who say they hold an unfavorable opinion.

O'Rourke does have better name recognition than some contenders, such as Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

  • O'Rourke 56 percent (-5 net favorability)
  • Biden: 14 percent (+14 net favorability)
  • Sanders: 12 percent (-12 net favorability)
  • Warren: 28 percent (-18 net favorability)
  • Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.: 46 percent (-7 net favorability)
  • Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.: 48 percent (-10 net favorability)
  • Gillibrand: 67 percent (-12 net favorability)
  • Klobuchar: 72 percent (-5 net favorability)

O'Rourke's relative anonymity gives him one advantage over some of his better-known rivals. He has more opportunities to define himself positively to voters, said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University poll.

Voters have largely baked-in views of prominent figures such as Biden, a former vice president, and Sanders, who ran a highly publicized campaign against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. O'Rourke has a chance to define himself to 2020 voters.

Of course, Republicans will also try to create their own version of O'Rourke — which poses risks for him as more voters develop an opinion of him.

"What you've got now is a race to define Beto O'Rourke," Brown said. "Either Trump's going to define him or Beto is going to define him, essentially."

The Republican Party started that effort on Thursday morning. It shared a Twitter graphic outlining what it called "some of what you need to know about the left's lovable loser, Beto O'Rourke."

"Best known for losing an election, after which he spent months on widely-mocked road trip to find himself," the GOP list concludes.

— CNBC's Ashley Turner contributed to this report

The Morning Consult poll includes 15,226 registered voters with a margin of error of plus-or-minus 1 percentage point.

The Quinnipiac University poll surveyed 1,058 Florida voters with a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.7 percentage points.

The Des Moines Register results cited included 401 voters likely to attend the Democratic caucuses, with a margin of error of plus-or-minus 4.9 percentage points.

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