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How Beto O’Rourke shaped his campaign narrative, according to the HBO director who followed him

Earlier this week, Fast Company executive editor Paul Smalera asked filmmaker David Modigliani if he thought Beto O’Rourke was going to run for president. Modigliani would be one to know–he followed O’Rourke’s failed Senate campaign from beginning to end for his about-to-be-released HBO documentary Running with Beto. In response to the question, the documentarian hedged–perhaps he knew or had an idea, but he didn’t want to misspeak.

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“I’m curious!” Modigliani finally said, adding that it’s possible the Texan political heartthrob was getting his ducks in a row before making any announcements. “If he runs,” he went on, “he would do it unconventionally.”

We, of course, now know the answer to this question. O’Rourke yesterday announced his intention to run for president as a Democrat. He did it in his characteristic ambling style, while being followed by a train of fawning press.

Modigliani had sat down with Smalera–along with Curtis Hickman, cofounder of the virtual reality experience The Void–at the Fast Company Grill at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. The three discussed non-traditional forms of storytelling, and how to keep an audience rapt in today’s split-second-attention-span world. But Modigliani had a few insights into why O’Rourke’s methodology for telegraphing a message was so engaging.

What O’Rourke did in Texas, while trying to oust Republican Senator Ted Cruz, was travel around the state to each district to simply talk to constituents. He live-streamed his travels, used social media in a conversational way, and ultimately tried to get people to see him as a real person. O’Rourke, Modigliani said, “has a facility with social media that really is impressive.” He was committed to the idea of running a “radically transparent campaign” and being “radically accessible.”

In the social media age, this has become more expected out of politicians and political hopefuls, but few do it was such ease and panache. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is a perfect example of another political persona who adeptly understands the intersection of social media and authenticity. O’Rourke, the filmmaker explained, was testing a theory with his senatorial bid: “What if you just ran on human beings connecting with other human beings?” It wasn’t so much about giving stump speeches, but about making people feel like they actually know you. He was “committed to that level of being unpolished” as well as “allergic to anything that might feel slick or produced.”

This all sounds like something any politician would want to do, yet few were able to get as much attention as O’Rourke. Of course, it should be said, his theory ultimately failed. Yes, he did show everyone who he was (or, at least, who he wants everyone to think he is), as well as garner endless press and record-breaking individual donation number. But he also lost. That’s going to be a big issue going into his presidential bid: How do you transfer a local loss into a national win?

For Modigliani, the real question surrounding O’Rourke’s campaign is also about how he transforms his old style onto a new tableau. “I’m curious about how do you scale that?” he asks. “How do you bring that unorthodoxy or unconventional approach to a very different type of race?” We’ll learn soon enough.

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