DES MOINES — As Deval Patrick sprinted around the country the past few days on a hastily assembled trip kicking off his presidential campaign, he discovered something both encouraging and disheartening: People like him. But at this late point in the Democratic race, they don’t think he has a chance to win.
At a veterans home in Las Vegas, a bakery in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and a county Democrats meeting in Des Moines, voters said they found the former Massachusetts governor funny, relatable, and experienced. They described him as a moving orator and a good listener — with a bad sense of timing.
“You could feel his heart,” said Kelly Sargent, 71, of Ankeny, Iowa, who heard him Monday night when Patrick spoke and took questions at the monthly meeting of the Polk County Democrats.
Sargent is just the type of voter Patrick has said inspired his late entry into the race, fewer than 90 days before the Iowa caucuses. She thinks most of the Democrats can’t beat President Trump and most of the front-runners in the polls are too old. She is looking for someone else, and yet: Patrick most likely won’t be her choice.
“How does he expect to win, to have the merest ghost of a chance — a snowball’s chance in hell — if he doesn’t participate in the debates?” Sargent said, noting that Patrick is unlikely to meet the thresholds for the next several. “Is he running for VP? I don’t get it.”
That exact phrase — “a snowball’s chance in hell” — has come up a lot this week on Patrick’s frenetic swing across the country, which began after he announced his campaign in New Hampshire on Thursday.
After New Hampshire, Patrick flew to Long Beach, Calif., where he was shoehorned into the morning session of a state Democratic Party conference hours before most of the other presidential candidates addressed the delegates at a highly anticipated forum.
The hectic pace of his last-minute quest for the nomination was clear the next morning, when Patrick was up before dawn to appear on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” then headed to Las Vegas as part of a trek that will take him to seven cities in four states in five days, ending in South Carolina on Wednesday.
Patrick crammed onto early-morning commercial flights, including one on an obscure airline that offered the only nonstop from Las Vegas to Cedar Rapids. His itinerary was organized on the fly, with events added at the last minute. In one case, his campaign sent reporters to the wrong address. Patrick called the trip a first introduction into the key early-voting states, with more extended visits to come, but it also seemed like a desperate attempt to make up for lost time.
Despite having few substantive answers on what form his campaign will take, Patrick was optimistic, saying he is confident there is a path for him to the nomination.
“I am here today as a gesture of respect for the people of Iowa, notwithstanding the fact that the other campaigns have been here for many, many months, in some cases years,” Patrick, a native of Chicago, told reporters in Des Moines. “And I am asking them to do what I as a Midwesterner have experienced my whole life, which is keep an open mind and an open heart and give me a chance to make my case and hear yours.”
Some Democrats are concerned about the rise of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and her progressive agenda, which is also shared by another top contender, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Meanwhile, the leading centrist in the race, former vice president Joe Biden, has stumbled in recent months, opening the door for another moderate, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, to rise to the top of the latest Iowa poll.
Patrick has also cast himself as being in the ideological center, someone with Democratic ideals who can unify people of both parties. But at every campaign stop, Patrick was met by reporters who pelted him with questions that seemed determined to burst his optimistic bubble: How can you possibly win? What is your ground game? How will you raise money?
In Nevada, one reporter asked at what point he would decide whether his endeavor is worth continuing or a fool’s errand. Patrick said he won’t put such a limit on himself.
“I will respect that you are skeptical, and when I prove you otherwise I hope you will respect that you are wrong,” he said.
Throughout the jam-packed days, one thing became apparent: Patrick is still a skillful campaigner who can connect with voters.
At the Polk County Democrats meeting, held on a rainy night in a packed conference room of a local government office building, people stayed an extra hour at the end of their regular meeting to hear from Patrick, who spent most of the time taking questions. He asked for people’s names and remembered them.
In Cedar Rapids, he ate kolach, a Czech pastry that’s the local specialty, while he talked about climate change with a state senator at a bakery that flooded in 2008.
“I thought he said the right things. He definitely has thought about climate change,” said Carol Wickey, 78, of Cedar Rapids, who came to see him because she has a friend from Somerville.
At every stop, Patrick, 63, emphasized his humble upbringing on the South Side of Chicago and his successes as governor of Massachusetts.
When voters laughed at his jokes or gathered around to shake his hand, it was possible to forget for a moment the herculean task that Patrick faces — competing against campaigns that have been operating in these states for months. If it had been March, not November, his prospects might be looking good.
His climb is particularly difficult in Iowa, where a robust network of staff and volunteers is imperative because of the complex caucus system. At the meeting in Des Moines, a representative of the Sanders campaign announced that they have 22 offices in Iowa. Someone from the Biden campaign said it has four offices in Polk County alone. A woman announced that Senator Kamala Harris will be spending Thanksgiving in West Des Moines.
So far, Patrick has no staff in Iowa and no offices and no scheduled events.
“He seems like an intelligent, well-intentioned man. It’s just that I think he’s fighting an uphill battle,” said Randy Tucker, 56, of Pleasant Hill, Iowa.
At larger events, organizers had hastily added Patrick to the program. In Nevada, he was the last of 21 speakers at a forum for Democratic presidential candidates at the Bellagio hotel. By the time he spoke, the boisterous crowd of nearly 2,000 had thinned to only about 50.
Volunteers had nearly finished cleaning the room by the time he took the stage.
But those who were left paid attention. They clapped hard for his calls for American unity and laughed at a story about his wife sending him to Home Depot.
“He has great ideas, he is a great speaker, he’s just an all-around good guy,” said Trudy Brophy, 69, of Las Vegas. “I think if he would have come in earlier he would be right at the top.”