Just about half way between the launch of U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s presidential candidacy on May 2 and the first primary contest of the 2020 race — the Iowa caucus on Feb. 3 — the Colorado Democrat is rebooting his campaign.
Bennet is looking for inspiration to Gary Hart, the patron saint of long-shot Democratic presidential candidates, who held the same Senate seat as Bennet for two terms in the 1970s and ’80s and on Sept. 7 showed up in New Hampshire to endorse Bennet’s White House bid.
"A number of years ago, the voters of New Hampshire provided an opportunity for a young Colorado senator to build a strong national candidacy," said Hart, who won the 1984 New Hampshire primary, in a statement. "They have the chance now to do it again.”
After failing to make the cut for Thursday's Democratic presidential primary debate and failing to make a dent in national and early-state polling, Bennet is doubling down on a grassroots campaign in those same early states, adding staff and setting a heavy schedule in Iowa and New Hampshire, which holds its primary this cycle on Feb. 11.
As part of that strategy, Bennet opened his national campaign headquarters in Lakewood, just two days before 10 of his fellow Democratic presidential hopefuls took the stage in Houston for the third nationally televised debate of the cycle.
Bennet is “frustrated” with the polling and fundraising requirements set by the Democratic National Committee to qualify for the September and October debates — the DNC hasn’t yet announced its criteria for the subsequent debates it plans to sponsor — and has been raising a ruckus about it, including in a blistering speech delivered at a DNC meeting in San Francisco earlier in late August.
Susan Daggett, Bennet’s wife, outlined his approach at a party Tuesday celebrating the Bennet campaign’s new offices in Lakewood.
“His plan is to put his head down, put his walking shoes on, talk with people and meet people,” she said. “When he has the chance to do that, person-to-person in living rooms … people walk out of there saying, 'Wow, that guy is incredible, he's smart, he believes what I believe, he's saying the things that need to be said, he's truthful, he's got integrity,' and they really, really like him. I think if he does that, he'll be all right, and he'll have a really good showing in those early states.”
Invoking Hart’s upset win, Bennet made a similar point in a CNN interview on Sept. 7.
"If history is a guide, it's going to be somebody who today is at 1% or 2% who ends up winning in Iowa and ends up winning in New Hampshire,” Bennet said. “That's the way it works. And the front-runners tend to be the people that will drop back between now and then."
Bennet is attempting to follow in the footsteps — or at least some of the footsteps — of Hart, who parlayed a surprising second-place finish in the 1984 Iowa caucuses to a stunning upset eight days later over former Vice President Walter Mondale in the New Hampshire primary. (Hart lost the nomination to Mondale, who lost the election to Ronald Reagan.)
Hart’s surge from the back of the pack set heads spinning and set up a months-long battle with Mondale for the soul of the Democratic Party — similar to the struggle Bennet is attempting to wage with the leading 2020 candidates, including former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Kamala Harris of California.
But there are some crucial differences between this cycle’s contest for the Democratic nomination and the one Hart nearly captured 36 years ago.
Hart, who polled at 4% in September 1983, only had to vault over a handful of other candidates to become the alternative to Mondale, including civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, former Florida Gov. Reuben Askew and U.S. Sens. John Glenn of Ohio, Alan Cranston of California and Ernest Hollings of South Carolina.
According to current polling, there are as many as 16 candidates separating Bennet from Biden, the front-runner.
Another wrinkle in Bennet’s theory is that he’s only one of at least a dozen underdogs in the race this time around, including a handful of better-polling moderate Democrats positioning themselves as the centrist alternative in case Biden falters sometime over the next five months.
Strictly speaking, what Bennet is describing has only happened twice since the advent of the modern primary system, which began to emerge with the 1972 election, and even then the parallels aren’t exact.
The first instance was in 1976, when former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter vaulted from obscurity to a second-place finish — behind “uncommitted” — in the then-obscure Iowa caucuses. Carter went on to win the New Hampshire primary five weeks later after placing second in the Oklahoma and Mississippi contests — trailing “uncommitted” and then-Alabama Gov. George Wallace, respectively — which in those days preceded New Hampshire. Carter won the nomination and ousted the incumbent president, Republican Gerald Ford.
The political polling in 1976 was scant compared to the plethora of surveys available these days, so it’s impossible to tell which candidates were at 1% or 2% at this point in that primary, but a national Harris Survey released in July 1975 shows Carter polling at 1%, behind 18 other Democrats — including quite a few who didn’t wind up campaigning for the nomination. That’s about equivalent to where Bennet has placed this summer.
Democrats have had 10 contested nominations in the dozen presidential cycles over the past 50 years — all of them except when Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama sought re-election in 1996 and 2012, respectively. And in only one of the nine examples other than the 1976 primary was the party’s nominee polling at the Bennet threshold by late summer or early fall the year before the election.
Arkansas Gov. Clinton, who hadn’t yet launched his campaign, scored 2% in an August 1991 Harris Survey poll that found New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who didn’t wind up running, leading the pack.
Since Bill Clinton’s presidency, the eventual Democratic nominee has either been the early front-runner — then-Vice President Al Gore in 2000 and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016 — or was polling in healthy double-digits, as then-U.S. Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Barack Obama of Illinois had been before the 2004 and 2008 primaries, respectively.