DOVER, N.H. — As Deval Patrick zipped across this snow-blanketed state in a hulking SUV, the former two-term Massachusetts governor had all the hallmarks of a top-tier presidential bid: television ads, paid staff, and a schedule packed with visits like this recent one to the key early voting state.
At each stop, Patrick demonstrated his mastery of retail politics, captivating voters packed into a creaky library and earning laughs in a basement papered with campaign posters. But after two months in the race, it is becoming clear that his late-entry bid may be missing two key components: support from voters and the time to gain it.
A little more than a month before the New Hampshire primary, the latest poll released last week showed Patrick with less than 1 percent in a state where he’s a known commodity to many. He has yet to qualify for any of the televised debates — including one in Iowa on Tuesday — that would put him in front of millions of viewers.
And during a campaign swing through New Hampshire on Friday, he drew meager crowds of 60 people at most, with some voters attending just so they could say they’ve seen every candidate.
“I just wish he had got in the race earlier,” Phil Hatcher, 63, of Dover, said after a Patrick event here, verbalizing the sentiment held by many who have seen him up close since entering the race.
“He’s a wonderful campaigner, and if he had got in a year ago he would have been different,” said Maurice Cunningham, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who has followed Patrick since his time as governor.
Cunningham said there probably was a real opening for Patrick’s brand, but he entered at the same time the campaign of former vice president Joe Biden’s stabilized and that of former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg took off, and both of them filled that void.
Patrick pulled off his unlikely win as governor in 2006 thanks to his knack for retail politics, but, in that case, he had much more time to work with, Cunningham said.
Eternally optimistic, Patrick does not like to be reminded of all this. He bristles when reporters badger him about whether he has a realistic shot. His least favorite word might be “poll,” and the harsh reality that his campaign seems to be going nowhere doesn’t appear to have set in with him.
“The polls that matter are the polls on Election Day,” he told reporters after his second stop on Friday at the public library in Dover. “So don’t keep insinuating that I need to do something other than what we’re doing, which is building by introducing ourselves to people person by person, voter by voter.”
At the same stop, Patrick told people in attendance that it was up to them, not the experts, to decide whether he was worth their vote. “I’ve had more than one conversation with people saying, ‘You’re exactly what I want but I’m afraid I need to vote for this one or that who is not my guy or gal because they are leading in the polls,’” he said. “And all I’m saying is don’t wait for somebody else to give you permission.”
Patrick launched his bid two weeks before Thanksgiving, calling it a “Hail Mary from two stadiums over,” but insisted that as a more pragmatic progressive, he had something to offer the already crowded field. Since then, however, he has failed to gain traction as the race barrels toward the first vote, now just three weeks away in Iowa.
The most recent New Hampshire poll put Patrick at the bottom alongside former Maryland representative John Delaney, and self-help author Marianne Williamson, who dropped out of the race last week. Patrick also did not qualify to make the ballot in Michigan, a key battleground state.
Meanwhile, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg who announced a week after Patrick, has used his billionaire fortune to become a more serious contender.
Still, Patrick shows no signs of giving up. His campaign says it has a staff of 70 as well as volunteers in all 50 states. A super PAC that supports him said last week it plans to run $2 million in television ads in early voting states designed to give him a boost.
The campaign also recently announced its own six-figure ad buy, a 30-second spot entitled “Not Too Late” that includes Patrick’s wife, Diane, shot in Boston and Chicago, where he grew up. And Patrick’s campaign said it will premiere another ad, called “American Dream,” on CNN in New Hampshire Tuesday night when the cable network airs the next Democratic debate.
Many of Patrick’s longtime campaign aides were already working for other candidates and causes by the time he entered the presidential race, but he has retained a few and they are pressing on, confident that if a moment comes when all the top-tier candidates falter, voters will look to the field again for an alternative.
They believe Patrick’s experience as governor makes him a trustworthy second choice. But absent some sort of electoral miracle before more than a dozen states vote on Super Tuesday, March 3, his odds will get much longer, they acknowledge. The campaign is focused on New Hampshire and South Carolina, whose primary is on Feb. 29, counting on Patrick’s name recognition and the large African-American Democratic electorate in that Southern state. Aides say his small crowds produce more high-quality interactions that leave lasting impressions with voters.
Hatcher, the voter in Dover, was in one of what seemed like three camps of people who turn up to Patrick events in New Hampshire.
Many are the devoted scorecard-types, who pride themselves on seeing every candidate, sometimes multiple times, before the primary, which this year is on Feb. 11. Others know or worked with Patrick in Massachusetts. He also draws people with a penchant for underdogs.
“I told my husband, I’m always for the one that’s not going anywhere, for some reason,” said Deanna Gallant, 78, from over the border in Berwick, Maine. “Sometimes they have the best to offer.”
For a moment, it looked as if a true devotee had found Patrick at the Dover event — a man with a copy of his 2011 book, “A Reason to Believe: Lessons from an Improbable Life.” But the man was there for business — he sells autographs online and was seeking Patrick’s.
Despite the long odds, Patrick continues to demonstrate that he’s a pro campaigner. His oratory draws people’s undivided attention. He says, “Bless you” when someone sneezes. He remembers the names of people who ask questions and offers self-deprecating humor that works.
Even his pivots — like one away from a detailed question on foreign policy to a touching story about his trip as a young man to Darfur — are captivating enough to make people forget the question for a moment.
One man called him a “soft-spoken gentleman, like Obama.”
“I think he’s an awesome guy,” said Jonathan Marcouillier, 31, a student at Southern New Hampshire University who asked Patrick a question about climate change at the first campaign event Friday at Nashua Community College.
But Patrick’s policy positions can seem secondary to the uphill climb he faces in the Democratic race.
“It’s going to be hard, for sure,” Marcouillier said as he left.
The sun had already been set for several hours when Patrick arrived at his last stop on Friday, a basement attached to the back of a Sinclair Mini-Mart in Newmarket that serves as the headquarters for the local Democrats.
It’s been hard for the Newmarket Democrats to attract top-tier candidates, but the group has welcomed entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former housing secretary Julián Castro, and two weeks ago, Colorado Senator Michael Bennett.
“The top people, we haven’t been able to get, and I get it. If Elizabeth Warren is drawing these huge crowds, where are they going to park here?” said Mitch Warren, vice chairman of the group.
Afterwards, Warren said he was impressed. Warren has seen a lot of candidates and besides their policies, there is an extra something he looks for.
“It’s a little part, but it’s a part,” said Warren. “Can I see him as president? And I can.”