MANCHESTER, N.H. — Representative Seth Moulton’s presidential campaign is still relatively young — only seven weeks old. But this week, as 20 of his rivals qualified for the first presidential primary debates, he was among four Democrats left on the sidelines.
Indeed, none of the typical campaign metrics have so far been encouraging for Moulton’s prospects. In most polls, not a single respondent says they are backing Moulton (the party used surveys as one of two qualifying metrics for the debates).
Moulton hasn’t hired staff or opened offices in the early presidential primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire — as many have done — although he does have a campaign presence in other states. His staff has declined, for the most part, to answer specific questions about how fund-raising is going. Moulton has received no major endorsements.
And back home in his congressional district, there are already a half-dozen people openly exploring a primary challenge against Moulton should he not become the presidential nominee and seek reelection instead.
In an interview, Moulton, 40, said he wasn’t discouraged. In fact, he said, when he is holding campaign events he feels a connection with voters. It reminds him of when he was behind 50 points in his first race for Congress, in 2014, before he knocked off an 18-year incumbent, John Tierney, in the primary.
“I just need to do more events, meet more people, and demonstrate I am the best candidate to defeat Donald Trump in the general election,” Moulton said.
Yet so far, his campaign schedule hasn’t been robust. This past week, Moulton held two public campaign events: a keynote address to the North Carolina Democratic Party’s annual dinner, and a speech to about 60 employees at New Hampshire’s largest utility company Monday morning. By comparison, when Senator Kirsten Gillibrand returns to the Granite State this weekend, she will hold seven events over two days.
Moulton said one reason he hasn’t been on the road as much was the need to be present for key House votes in Washington.
When asked after a campaign stop this week how he will know his campaign hasn’t taken off, the Salem Democrat replied, “If I win, then I will never know it is not working.”
This is not to suggest that his campaign is nonexistent. The campaign has more than 30 staffers with state directors named in Nevada and South Carolina, the third and fourth states on the Democratic Party’s nominating calendar. (Again, for comparison, most top-tier campaigns have hundreds of staffers spread across the first few primary states.)
He also brought on Marie Harf, a former Obama administration official and Fox News contributor. He has no dedicated campaign headquarters, but he has secured co-working office space in Boston, Salem, and Washington. Next week he will travel to South Carolina and has planned an extensive campaign schedule during the week of July Fourth.
Moulton said he feels he has secured the field’s so-called lane on national security. His five-minute stump speech focuses on his service, particularly his four tours of Iraq as a Marine, and, anecdotally, voters ask Moulton more about foreign policy at his events than they query other candidates, who are more often questioned about domestic and social issues. During the lunch time at the New Hampshire energy company, for example, half of the questions were about Russia, China, and free trade.
Another point of comparison for Moulton may be his friend and fellow US Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio. Ryan and Moulton are white men of approximately the same age. They worked together, twice, to try to topple Nancy Pelosi as the House Democratic leader. Ryan has been in the presidential race a couple weeks longer than Moulton.
Yet Ryan, 45, has met the metrics in polling to qualify for the first debates, scheduled for June 26 and 27 in Miami. He reached 1 percent in at least three national or early-state polls sanctioned by the DNC.
“I really can’t explain the state of Seth’s campaign, but he is an important voice,” Ryan said in a telephone interview. “I will say that I have been visiting some of these early presidential primary states a lot so I am probably better known.”
The most recent Des Moines Register poll of Iowans and national Quinnipiac Poll were among the last opportunities for Moulton to qualify for the debates. He received zero support in those surveys and others the party uses for its debate criteria.
“Compared to where other candidates were at this many weeks in, I am happy with where we are at on polling,” Moulton said. “The American people don’t know who I am yet. That takes time.”
The other way candidates qualify for the first debates is by having 65,000 individual contributors, with at least 200 donors each in 20 states. As of Thursday morning — hours before the DNC was set to officially announce who made the debate stage — Moulton was still running Facebook ads asking for help to hit this fund-raising threshold.
“We view this as a marathon, not a sprint,” Moulton spokesman Matt Corridoni said. “While others overspend and chase polls seven months before anyone votes or caucuses, we’re focused on how to build a long-term political strategy. The folks at the top now won’t be there when people really start to tune in this winter.”
Even if Moulton’s presidential campaign never takes off, there are political benefits to his bid: He can expand his fund-raising base nationwide and build a name for himself that could help him run for higher office or reelection next year.
As for the potential primary challengers back home, only one has officially filed paperwork. And that candidate, Jamie Zahlaway Belsito of Topsfield, once aided Moulton’s onetime Republican opponent, Richard Tisei, which might be a hard sell to Democratic primary voters. In addition to Tierney, of Salem, other potential Democratic primary candidates include former state senator Barbara L’Italien of Andover, state Representative Lori Ehrlich of Marblehead, and gun violence activist Angus McQuilken of Topsfield.
In the interview, Moulton said he is fully committed to his congressional district, and he said he wouldn’t be engaged in a presidential campaign just to do it.
“I am in this race to win. I am not in this race to get another job or raise my profile,” Moulton said. “I am in this race because I think it is of existential importance to this country that we beat Donald Trump and I think I am the best candidate to do that. And I have never shied away from serving my country when I feel I have something to offer.”
James Pindell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell. Click here to subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics.