Michael Bennet says his favorite movie is “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” the 1969 revisionist Western starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford as the legendary outlaws who didn’t let a few raindrops defeat them.
The George Roy Hill film depicts Butch and Sundance overcoming the odds in one memorable scene, when they’re cornered on a cliff high above a churning river by the super-posse that’s been hired by a railroad magnate tired of getting robbed by the pair.
Contemplating their only possible escape route, Sundance hems and haws before finally admitting why he’s reluctant to take the plunge. “I can’t swim!” he says.
Butch lets loose an explosive laugh and shakes his head. “Why, you crazy — the fall’ll probably kill ya,” he says before they jump to safety.
Bennet will know in a matter of weeks whether his White House ambitions echo the iconic Butch Cassidy scene, and he survives to campaign another day.
By the time New Hampshire’s Democratic primary votes are counted on the night of Feb. 11, Bennet’s leap of faith — keeping his campaign going on a shoestring as higher-polling and better-funded candidates drop out — will have either triumphed over immeasurable odds, or Colorado’s senior senator will be forced to reckon with the reality that even the most well-intentioned underdogs don’t always come out on top.
Since early December, Bennet has piled nearly all his eggs into the baskets of Iowa and New Hampshire’s respective first-in-the-nation caucus and primary, declaring that he’ll have to do well in one of those states if his campaign is to continue.
“In those states, people are just beginning to make up their minds,” he said in a recent interview. “I really believe that the issues that I've run on are the ones that are most consistent with Democrats in Iowa and Democrats and independents in New Hampshire.”
Added Bennet: “We're getting more endorsements, we're making progress. There are other folks that have been closing offices in New Hampshire when we've been adding some people and opening some offices. It's not the largest campaign that's there, but we have enough staff to do a credible job in Iowa and New Hampshire.”
After those two states vote, the primary moves to Nevada for a caucus on Feb. 22 and to South Carolina for a primary on Feb. 29. Then it's Colorado's chance to help pick the nominee on March 3 — Super Tuesday — along with 14 other states and territories. If things go according to Bennet's plan, his surprise finishes in the first contests will have propelled him into the upper ranks, bringing the kind of attention and money his campaign has been craving.
Bennet has been focusing most intently on New Hampshire for the last month, since before the state' primary and launching a fundraising drive to support a television and digital ad campaign aimed at putting himself in front of the notoriously independent and sometimes contrary-minded voters.
Bennet said in a living room in Manchester, N.H., earlier this month that he’s sensing momentum at “town hall after town hall.”
“I think that's real, and I really think there's a real possibility that we can end up in the top three here,” he told a small crowd of supporters.
Through the second week of January, Bennet’s campaign has logged 31 of the 50 New Hampshire town halls, staying until he’s answered the last question from crowds that hover in the dozens.
And after bringing in what his campaign says is more than $400,000 toward a $700,000 goal — peanuts compared to the millions some of his fellow candidates are pouring into their advertising budgets — Bennet aired a TV ad describing himself as “the opposite of Donald Trump” for a week in New Hampshire and launched a series of longer digital ads introducing himself to voters.
In the first, in a story that’s become a campaign trail staple, Bennet talks about the time his second grade class was “asked to line up in order of whose family had been here the shortest period of time and whose family had been here the longest.” Bennet's father’s family arrived on the Mayflower and his mother, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust, emigrated to the United States with her refugee parents after the Second World War.
“And that’s meant something to me from the time I was very young, and now it particularly means something to me when we have Donald Trump in the White House, the most anti-immigrant, anti-refugee president that we have ever had,” Bennet says in the video.
Armchair pundits insist Bennet must be angling to be someone’s vice presidential pick, or that he’s keeping his name in the mix — and his mug on the cable news shows he’s routinely blamed for turning American politics into an endless spectacle — in hopes of landing a cabinet appointment under whichever Democrat unseats Donald Trump.
But Bennet and his closest advisers dismiss such speculation, saying it misses entirely the reason Bennet is sticking with a campaign others might have long ago abandoned.
Bennet said at a town hall in Manchester, N.H., just after midnight on Jan. 1, that he learned from his mother that the United States “is a symbol that was critically important to people around the world,” and from his father, he learned “that public service was noble.”
Trump, Bennet added, has been “upholding neither of those things.”
“We're seeing that now all over the planet as President Trump blunders from one thing to another in areas that are of enormous danger to us,” Bennet said, adding, “He's undermined the whole notion of public service the whole time he's been in the presidency. He doesn't seem to care about anybody other than himself, and that's why he needs to go.”
He continued: “But it's not all we need to do. We've got to figure out how to govern the country again. We know how to do it. That starts with an agenda that unifies people instead of divides them.”
Staying on message
In the year since his presidential campaign began to materialize, Bennet’s core message hasn’t changed.
Jan. 24 will mark one year since Bennet took to the Senate floor to castigate Ted Cruz for the Texan’s “crocodile tears” during the government shutdown in a lengthy diatribe that encapsulated Democrats’ frustration with the GOP's obstruction tactics. The video quickly went viral, becoming the second-most watched video in C-SPAN history.
The anniversary of an event Bennet followers refer to as simply “the speech” will also be 10 days until the Iowa caucus and 18 days until the New Hampshire primary.
"It's important in this moment in our democracy to have as candid a conversation as we can, because our democracy is under real risk,” Bennet said at a recent town hall.
Terming Trump not the cause but “a symptom of our problems,” Bennet struck a theme he’s routinely articulated: “We have to do everything we can to defeat Donald Trump, and at the back end, we've got to come out begin able to govern again. The fever hasn't broken, and the only way to break it is to win elections.”
Like a Beltway Cassandra, Bennet has been sounding the alarm against Democrats tying themselves too firmly to positions that risk turning off crucial swing voters, including big-ticket proposals such as Medicare for All that he argues will only distract the country from solving problems within reach.
“I don't blame myself for the carelessness that elected Donald Trump the first time, but I will blame myself if he wins again,” he said. “We need to do more than offer empty promises that further disillusion the American people.”
“We're just going to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and with your support, I think we can get it done,” he said at a New Hampshire town hall.
In Denver, Bennet put it this way: “There is nobody to ride to the rescue here except us. … There's not a mystery to it. It's going to take a lot of hard work, but there are Americans who came before us who faced far greater challenges than what we face.”
He’s taking a page from Gary Hart and the late John McCain, two senators who toppled expectations by winning the New Hampshire primary after their campaigns had been written off by the political class.
McCain ran a 2008 GOP primary campaign that bears some similarity to Bennet’s, holding town halls across New Hampshire, where voters heard the Arizonan’s “straight talk” answers to their questions.
Hart, the Democrat who held the same Colorado Senate seat occupied by Bennet for two terms in the 1970s and 1980s, endorsed Bennet in New Hampshire last summer, blessing his successor as heir to the insurgent, come-from-behind strategy that vaulted Hart into contention in 1984.
But while history indeed shows that January frontrunners often stumble on the way to the Democratic presidential nomination once the voting starts — look no further than Hillary Clinton losing to Barack Obama in 2008, and John Kerry leaping over a handful of other candidates to wrest the 2004 nod from Howard Dean — the record is less encouraging for dark-horse hopefuls who consistently register as far back in the pack as Bennet has for the past year.
If Bennet’s recent appearances have a valedictory tone, it could be because eight months into his presidential run — his campaign launch in early May was delayed about a month until he received a clean bill of health following treatment for a surprise diagnosis of prostate cancer — Bennet’s standing in the polls hasn’t improved from the 1% support he scored in the first primary poll to include his name, the Des Moines Register/CNN survey of likely Iowa caucus-goers released on March 9.
In poll after poll, nationally and in early primary states, he’s hovered between 0% and 1%, even as more than a dozen better-polling candidates have watched their numbers move around since last April, when FiveThirtyEight began tracking a rolling average of Democratic primary polls.
During the same stretch, Joe Biden’s support has held at about 27% this month after ranging from a low of 24% support in April to a high of 35% in June. The other current leading candidate, Bernie Sanders, has bounced around from a high of 22% in April to a low of 15% in May before settling in at about 17% in the last month.
Others have rocketed from obscurity to the upper tier — starting at 6% in April, Elizabeth Warren peaked at 23% in October before dropping back to 15% in recent months, while Pete Buttigieg began with 0.6% in April, then climbed into the upper single digits last summer and again in December.
Only John Delaney and Marianne Williamson’s support levels have registered as consistently as Bennet’s over the last nine months, though Williamson’s support briefly flirted with cracking 1% in September before the author and spiritual guide’s backing dropped back to the 0.4% where it’s held steady for a couple months. (Williamson fired her staff in early January and ended her campaign on Jan. 10.)
Hopes lie with the undecided
Bennet, meanwhile, has flat-lined in the low to mid-10ths of a percent for most of the year, landing at 0.2% in FiveThirtyEight’s Jan. 8 average.
He isn’t doing any better in Iowa or New Hampshire, though there have been many fewer primary polls in those states than have been conducted nationally. Bennet crested at 1% support in Iowa last spring but has dropped into the lower half of the bottom percentile since, coming in at 0% in the Jan. 8 average. He had the same average on Jan. 8 in New Hampshire, where he peaked at 1% in August.
But Bennet and his campaign aren’t dwelling on those numbers. Instead, they’re trumpeting the unusually high numbers of early-state voters who say they haven’t firmly committed to a candidate.
According to a December NPR/PBS/Marist poll, 76% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning independent voters haven’t yet made up their minds which candidate they’ll support for president. Some other recent polls have had similar findings, though most polls don’t ask the question so directly.
It’s “kind of an irony,” Bennet said at a recent New Hampshire town hall, that the primary appears to be as open as it is, with no clear frontrunner. Biden and Sanders sit atop most polls, though Warren and Buttigieg have led in some state surveys and the top candidates’ warchests could keep the contest unsettled for months, election observers say.
“I say it's ironic because the DNC made this decision about the debate stage, where they're carving people off the debate stage at a moment when nobody in New Hampshire has actually made up their mind,” Bennet said. “More than that, at a moment when the folks in New Hampshire are taking a look at the leading candidates and asking, 'Are these really the folks that we want to put up against Donald Trump?'”
After qualifying for the first two primary debates last summer, Bennet has blasted the Democratic National Committee for putting its thumb on the scale, winnowing the center-stage candidates after lagging polling and fundraising totals kept him from the last four primary debates.
This week, DNC Chairman Tom Perez again defended the party’s ratcheting restrictions that have whittled the number of debate participants from 20 in June to just six expected to appear at the Jan. 14 debate in Des Moines.
"What we have done is, we've set forth a clear set of transparent, inclusive rules,” Perez said on MSNBC. “Nobody who's been under 5% at this point in a primary has ever won a primary or caucus. We set those rules out in advance. And it's for the voters to decide."
What Perez says isn’t quite accurate — Jimmy Carter was polling an average 0.5% support in a field of 13 candidates in the months before the 1976 Iowa caucus — though he’s mostly right.
Bennet, however, continues to impress observers who were once among the traditional gatekeepers for presidential nominations, including newspaper editorial boards that have been calling on readers to give this Coloradan another look.
A few weeks after the Des Moines Register editorial board anointed Bennet as the Democratic candidate who could “pound some truth” into the campaign, a New Hampshire Union Leader editorial mentioned Bennet in a plea for the national media to pay attention, to drop its “obsession with ‘front-runners’ and the horse race aspect of the selection process, caring little for issues.”
In December, Vicki Kennedy, widow of Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy, introduced Bennet to a group of Boston-area high school students at the Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate as “one of our nation’s inspirational leaders … cut from the same public service cloth” as her late husband.
“Ted recognized Michael Bennet’s leadership qualities, his pragmatism, his independence of thought and his drive to create opportunity for the next generation,” Kennedy continued. “As a presidential candidate, he has been passionate and eloquent about providing opportunity for everyone to participate in the American Dream and restoring integrity to our government.”
Presidential campaign trail reporter Walter Shapiro wrote in The New Republic in December that a top fundraiser for Buttigieg had recently told him that Michael Bennet could well win “a secret ballot of Senate Democrats as to who would make the best president.” According to Shapiro, the Buttigieg supporter then added that it was “a shame that he’s not even allowed to debate."
As balloting fast approaches in Bennet’s make-it-or-break states, the candidate once dubbed “the accidental senator” — after his surprise appointment to fill a Senate vacancy, before winning election to the seat twice — plans to keep the conversation going in living rooms and meeting halls as long as he can.
“I don't think Donald Trump is the essential cause of all our problems, though in my view, he's made matters much, much worse,” Bennet said recently in Denver. “People ran out of patience, and I understand that. I think we need to find a way to respond to that.”
After a decade of Republicans laying siege to what Bennet calls “small-d democratic institutions” and “completely immobiliz[ing] Washington,” he argued, “The American people responded to that, in part, by sending a reality TV star to Washington to blow things up. People say they wanted to blow the place up. I say, ‘Congratulations, you've achieved your objective. Now what do we do?’”
The concluding scene in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," Bennet's favorite movie, suggests a different possibility, however.
After an idyllic interlude robbing banks in South America, the wise-cracking bandits find themselves surrounded by what must be half the Bolivian army.
Wounded and nearly out of ammunition, Butch and Sundance decide they’ll head to Australia after shooting their way out. As they emerge into the town square, guns blazing, the film’s frame freezes and the color drains over the muffled sound of gunfire.
Bennet, for his part, will soon know which of the movie's scenes portrays his presidential run.