Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Beto O’Rourke Steal Some Thunder From 2020 Democrats

(Bloomberg) -- The struggle to get noticed in a bulging field of Democratic presidential contenders doesn’t get easier when you have to compete with the likes of party stars Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Beto O’Rourke.

Eight 2020 Democratic hopefuls took the stage at the annual South by Southwest cultural festival in Austin, Texas, over the weekend, attempting to broaden their appeal and test their message with a millennial-heavy audience.

But as the candidates took turns giving lengthy, often policy-weighted interviews, they were eclipsed by two Democrats who aren’t even in the race. New York Representative Ocasio-Cortez and O’Rourke, a former Texas representative, each commanded huge crowds and dominated the conference buzz.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Beto O’Rourke Steal Some Thunder From 2020 Democrats

O’Rourke made a widely expected “surprise” appearance at the premier of a documentary about his close but ultimately failed 2018 Senate race against Republican Ted Cruz. He disappointed fans that hoped he’d use the occasion to announce he’s also entering the presidential contest. Ocasio-Cortez, 29, weeks into her first term and not old enough to run for the White House, packed a huge ballroom at the Austin Convention Center to answer questions about her vision for a Green New Deal and identity politics.

Warren’s Plan

Their appearances overshadowed sessions with two sitting U.S. senators who are candidates for the Democratic nomination, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, although both drew full houses of attentive listeners. Warren inspired an animated response to her proposal, announced on Friday, to break up giant tech companies like Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Co.’s Google in a bid to ensure a competitive market.

But Ocasio-Cortez’s call to smash political norms was the session that attracted the most diverse and enthusiastic crowd. As she entered, about one-third of the audience leaped up, cheered and raised their phones to capture photos and videos. A queue of people waiting to ask questions of the youngest woman in Congress included television personality Bill Nye, the Science Guy. Unlike the punctual start and finish times of the candidate interviews, Ocasio-Cortez extended her session by almost 30 minutes in order to field more questions.

She used the occasion to underscore her reputation for controversial remarks with a critique of capitalism as an unsustainable system that emphasizes corporate profit over the welfare of working people.

Income Inequality

In contrast to the congresswoman’s overflow crowd, only a few dozen people drifted into a theater event space Sunday morning to hear Washington Governor Jay Inslee explain why he’s making climate change the centerpiece of his campaign for the Democratic nomination.

Like the other candidates at SXSW, Inslee hit hard on criticism of President Donald Trump. A common theme for the candidates as well as for Ocasio-Cortez was the need to address income inequality and address the concerns of working class voters in the middle of the U.S. who gravitated to Trump in 2016.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Beto O’Rourke Steal Some Thunder From 2020 Democrats

“There was some folderol going on that we could not connect with people feeling economic anxiety in the Midwestern states,” Inslee said. The 2018 midterms, in which Democrats won back the majority in the U.S. House and won many down-ballot gains, “proved we could. We proved we could connect with meat and potato concerns.”

Republican Critics

Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, former Obama administration official Julian Castro, and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, all in the mix for the Democratic nomination, also took the stage.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Beto O’Rourke Steal Some Thunder From 2020 Democrats

Republicans on hand included former Massachusetts Governor William Weld, who’s considering challenging Trump in the Republican primaries, and former Ohio Governor John Kasich, a Trump critic.

There are still 11 months to go before Democratic voters make their preferences known in the first actual nomination contest -- the Iowa caucuses. But the candidates in the race are already vying for donations and endorsements while building the kind of campaign infrastructure necessary for a months-long 50-state primary race. Getting in front of voters is crucial for that.

Generational Issues

The South by Southwest conference, started in 1987, has evolved into one of the country’s defining cultural events, combining music and film festivals with showcases for technology and politics. This year it made an ideal venue for presidential aspirants to test their message and broaden their appeal to a generation shaped by school shootings, climate change and the Internet, while facing soaring costs for college and health care.

The Democratic field is still dominated by a candidate not yet in the race: former Vice President Joe Biden. He remains the favorite in national and state polling as the first choice of about a quarter of Democrats. He’s followed by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, with Warren and California Senator Kamala Harris trailing.

O’Rourke, who like Biden has said he’d make a decision on the race soon, remains consistently in the middle of the pack, ahead of Klobuchar, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and the rest. Inslee, Hickenlooper, Castro and Buttigieg are barely registering in polls at this early stage.

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