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Get Off My Lawn

America says goodbye to the Swalwell 2020 campaign.
July 8, 2019
Get Off My Lawn
Give him the damn torch already. (Raedle/Getty Images)

Eric Swalwell, best known for being a smarmy guy no one liked who was running for president, is no longer running for president. The four-term California congressman announced Monday at a press conference in his home district that he is dropping out of the 2020 Democratic primary, after months of strenuous campaigning failed to convince even one percent of likely primary voters that he was the right man to take on Donald Trump. Instead, Swalwell plans to renege on his previous “burn the boats” White House or bust pledge and defend his House seat next year.

“Being honest with ourselves, we had to look at how much money we were raising and where we were in the polls,” Swalwell told reporters Monday. “We have to be honest about our candidacy.”

Swalwell’s timing makes sense. Often, lowest-tier presidential candidates try to stick around as long as possible in the hopes of building a national brand, but Swalwell was polling so poorly that there was little indication he would even qualify for the next few rounds of primary debates. Meanwhile, sticking it out in the primary was beginning to look like it could endanger his seat back home: local politico Aisha Wahab announced she would run for Swalwell’s seat days after he entered the race in April. Dropping out early doesn’t always make your next reelection a slam dunk, of course—the first to go among 2016’s GOP contenders, former party darling Scott Walker, lost the governor’s mansion his next time around. But it’s never smart to let a challenger have the field to herself for too long.

Still, it’s pretty amusing that Swalwell picked this week to drop out. By doing so, he provided a glimpse into the goofy sort of marketing pabulum that often passes for campaign strategy these days.

We’re now about ten days past the first round of Democratic debates, meaning Swalwell was clearly waiting around for the latest post-debate polls to see whether he’d caught fire under the NBC primetime lights. Plainly, the congressman had bet his campaign on a single virtuosic debate performance.

So when Swalwell showed up at the debate on June 28, he came to play: He went after Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden with a choreographed set piece, telling a childhood story about watching Biden—who was running for president then too!—tell the California Democratic Convention that “it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans.” With the enthusiasm of a TV cop laying a piece of irrefutable evidence on a hapless crook, Swalwell informed Biden it was now his turn to pass the torch along to someone younger. And it was pretty clear he didn’t mean Pete Buttigieg. You know, the small-town mayor from Indiana with bumping around at 5.2 percent in the RealClear average. As opposed to Swalwell. Who was sitting at exactly 0.0 percent. (Seriously. He didn’t even register.)

It seems to have surprised Swalwell that being willing to go after a beloved Democratic icon with a 76 percent favorability for being too old didn’t make Democratic voters love him.

But what else could he have said? Swalwell seemed to be searching for some sort of magic rhetorical bullet, something that would wow voters and make them say to themselves: “Wow, this Swalwell guy isn’t just the mediocre white dude with the TV hair we thought he was!”

Does such a bullet exist? The Swalwell campaign presumed that voters are basically lizard-brained consumers, ready to lurch en masse toward the candidate who deploys the sickest burns. And maybe that’s true, in the main. Or maybe not. We’ll see.

But in a world where American voters often seem to lack the ability to make basic judgments about politicians according to rational criteria, the failure of Swalwell 2020 is evidence that sometimes, the American people still get it right.

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger was a senior writer at The Bulwark.