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Long Shots Still Come to New Hampshire, Hoping to Beat the Odds. But Why?

Lauren Chooljian/NHPR

Some of the Democratic candidates running for president this year are banking on a myth.

It’s a famous one: That New Hampshire gives little known candidates a real chance at the White House.

But in 2020, is there still any truth to that?

The main reason any candidate even believes they can go from low-polling long shot to underdog winner in New Hampshire is because it’s happened before. Before the 1976 election, hardly anyone knew who Jimmy Carter was. But Carter paved the way for little known candidates by coming to New Hampshire and focusing on retail politics: He slept in voters homes, his family and friends knocked on doors for him, and he built momentum one voter at a time.

And it worked. He won the New Hampshire primary and went on to become president. And more than four decades later, candidates are still using the same playbook.

I asked Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who's low in the polls but spending a lot of time in New Hampshire, where he got the idea of putting all his hopes in a surprise Granite State finish.

"Jimmy Carter would be a good person to get this idea from but I first got it from Gary Hart," he told me.

Bennet makes a good point: Carter may have started this, but later candidates like Hart (who came in a surprise first place in the 1984 Democratic primary), Bill Clinton (who rode an unexpected second-place result in New Hampshire to the White House), and John McCain (who twice beat the odds to win here) carried on the tradition. Their campaigns only solidified New Hampshire's legend as a place where underdogs could find a home and shock the political world.

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR

But what about in 2020? Is that still possible? Bennet seems to think so. He's certainly doing the retail politics thing: He’s promised to hold 50 town halls before the primary. And by NHPR’s count, he’s held more events than any other candidate.

But it’s not like he always draws a crowd. There were just a dozen people at a recent campaign event at a Somersworth cafe. 

"As you may have noticed I’m not at the top of the polls right now, which makes you deeply cherished people that you’re here today listening to me, so I would love your help," he told the cafe crowd.

Yet Bennet keeps going. And, he says, he's not giving up hope.

"When I’m meeting with people in New Hampshire, they’re farther away from making up their minds than they were six weeks ago, six months ago, or even a year ago," he said.

That is true: There are a lot of undecided voters around here and no clear frontrunner. But in 2020, there are a few major obstacles that guys like Hart and Carter didn’t have to worry about. Bennet hasn’t qualified for any of the national television debates since this summer. Not to mention, it's January: Time is running out. 

And Bennet clearly has a lot of ground to make up.

The same night Bennet was in Somersworth, around 900 people came to see Pete Buttigieg a few miles away in Portsmouth. Now sure, not every person in this audience will vote for Buttigieg. But campaigns drawing bigger crowds have an easier time identifying supporters they can get to the polls on primary day.

For example, a Buttigieg staffer got people to text the campaign their information right on the spot.

"That’s how you get signed up for all the events happening near you and how you sign up to talk to your neighbors and your friends about Pete," the staffer told the crowd.

I tested it out and got a text back immediately with details for nine upcoming events.

So, is it possible for a guy like Bennet to score a surprise win in New Hampshire? It’s gonna be tough. Which of course raises the question: Why would a low-polling candidate keep campaigning here?

Maybe because some New Hampshire voters want them to. Max Koenig from Dover is trying to see every 2020 candidate; he was at Bennet’s Somersworth event.

"There’s 320 million people in this country, and I dont think it's a bad thing to have a bunch of different voices," Koenig said.

Max grew up in New Hampshire, and he said if the state stops being a place where anybody can show up and try and run for president, the country will be the lesser for it.

"Hearing those stories only makes us better as a country and understanding that everyone is coming from a different place here, so I'm all for it," he said. "I wish there were twice as many candidates that we were running around trying to see."

But while this might be good for democracy, it’s still not going to help Bennet achieve that long shot win he’s hoping for.

Koenig already knows who he’s voting for: He’s a Trump supporter.

Lauren is a Senior Reporter/Producer for NHPR's narrative news unit, Document.
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