BEDFORD, N.H. — Michael Bennet is the first one to tell you he isn’t polling as high as other Democrats running for president. That he hasn’t raised as much money. He wasn’t on the debate stage last week and, frankly, you may not recognize him because he hasn’t graced one of the nationally televised forums since July.
None of that is stopping this senator from standing in his socks and trying to persuade New Hampshire voters to give him a chance.
“I don’t think you can get more the opposite of Donald Trump than I am,” Bennet said, though he failed to mention whether his polite agreement to leave his shoes at the door like everyone else at the house party was part of the contrast he offers.
New Hampshire is basically the only place Bennet and a handful of other long shots are making their pitches, staking their campaigns on a gamble that a strong showing in the first-in-the-nation primary can catapult them out of obscurity and into contention. That hard work at house parties and town halls can make up for deficits of money, name recognition, and online fans.
Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii recently spent 14 days straight holding daily events in the state. Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick has focused his late-entry bid on New Hampshire and South Carolina. Bennet, a Coloradan, has chosen to skip Iowa and its crowded caucuses, which take more money to compete in than a primary in a more compact state.
“It’s a long shot, but it was a long shot from the day I got in the race, and the race is less consolidated today than when I got in the race,” said Bennet, who polls somewhere between zero and 2 percent in state surveys.
New Hampshire primary veterans say the state still possesses its mythical power to boost candidates.
“If I were Michael Bennet, I would be doing exactly the same thing,” said former Vermont governor Howard Dean, the onetime presidential hopeful who was the front-runner of the 2004 race but lost New Hampshire — and ultimately the nomination — to John Kerry.
Bennet doesn’t have to win New Hampshire, nor is he likely to, but exceeding expectations there would provide momentum to compete, Dean said. “This is a bit of a lightning strike,” the former head of the Democratic National Committee admitted, “but it’s not ridiculous.”
There’s historical precedent for using New Hampshire to turn the tide of a campaign, which Bennet cites: Former senator John McCain. The Arizona Republican drove his “Straight Talk Express” to victory in the state’s primary in both 2000 and 2008.
In his second go-round, McCain — carrying his own bags — decamped to New Hampshire after nearly running out of money. He fought his way back one town hall after another across the state.
Bill Clinton didn’t even win New Hampshire in 1992, but his second-place finish there after an intense eight days of stumping was enough to right a campaign foundering amid questions about Gennifer Flowers and the Vietnam War draft.
Of course, not every instance of a candidate betting his political fortunes on New Hampshire pans out. Former Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman pulled out of Iowa to focus on New Hampshire during the 2004 primary, even moving to an apartment in Manchester for a time.
He did not gain the “Joementum” he predicted. He came in fifth and pulled out of the race a week later.
Kerry’s win in New Hampshire after placing first in Iowa that year “created a momentum that no one could ever stop,” Lieberman recalled, underscoring the risk of skipping Iowa.
Even those who see a path for long shots like Bennet acknowledge that the dynamics of the 2020 race make it harder to win New Hampshire the town-hall-by-town-hall way. The congested field, the growing importance of cable news, and the need to cultivate huge networks of small-dollar donors all complicate the old playbook. That’s especially true when it comes to how those forces have excluded the lesser-known candidates from the debate stage.
Some predict the dynamic of unsettled voters obsessed with electability could lead New Hampshire to follow Iowa’s lead.
“The whole cycle seems right for Iowa to have a big impact on New Hampshire voters. As in, ‘Who can win? Well, maybe the person who just won in Iowa,’ ” mused Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political science professor.
And then there’s former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and his thick, thick wallet, waiting like a billion-dollar buzz saw to chew up conventional wisdom on Super Tuesday, where he’s focused his considerable resources.
Also: an impeachment trial is trapping the senators who are running for president in Washington and away from New Hampshire.
Bennet remains undaunted. In early December, he pledged to hold 50 town halls around the state (he’s logged 38) before the Feb. 11 primary. He’s pitching himself as the candidate who can win in purple places like Colorado and New Hampshire. He frames himself as a more practical progressive than some of his opponents, a standard-bearer who could bring along die-hard Democrats while appealing to onetime Obama supporters who backed Trump in 2016.
“I am not polling as high as some of the other people in this race, as you may have noticed. That has not changed a basic set of facts, which is that I am better positioned than any of these other candidates to take on Donald Trump,” Bennet told a standing-room-only crowd of about 180 in downtown Manchester earlier this month.
Democrats can’t beat Trump “by trying to trick people with a bunch of free stuff,” he argued, lobbing a hit at the sweeping and expensive plans of Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
And, he adds, there’s “nothing progressive” about saddling future generations with mountains of debt.
“They’re not small ideas,” Bennet said, responding to Warren’s critique that her more moderate rivals aren’t proposing solutions big enough for the problems at hand. “Not only can they be accomplished, but they can create political momentum, so we can have a long progressive agenda here in America.”
While he paints Warren and Sanders as too pie-in-the-sky, he knocks another rival doing better than he is — former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg — as too inexperienced. Talking about his experience as Denver schools superintendent at the Manchester town hall, he made a point to note that the $1 billion budget he was in charge of was “three times the size of a certain small town in Indiana.”
Bennet is winning converts — there’s just no evidence yet that he is winning enough.
Take Michael Fedder, a retired technology executive who hosted the Bedford house party for Bennet. He didn’t realize Bennet was still in the race until a neighbor brought it up. Fedder, who had been eyeing Buttigieg and billionaire businessman Tom Steyer, agreed to attend a Bennet event.
Seeing Bennet speak “brought me instant clarity,” Fedder said. The retired executive’s thinking: Bennet is younger than former vice president Joe Biden, who doesn’t seem to have the chops to take on Trump anymore, but has more experience than Buttigieg.
And three weeks later, Fedder was hosting Bennet in his own airy living room.
But first Bennet needed to leave his shoes at the door.