Amy Klobuchar sat on a couch Saturday afternoon amid the used-paper-plate debris of her skybox in a hockey arena after a long day at the New Hampshire Democratic convention. The three-term Minnesota senator had reason to be pleased; her ten-minute convention speech (“What’s the difference between Donald Trump and Greenland? Greenland is not for sale”), which she had cobbled together on her iPhone at 5:30 a.m., had gotten a warm reception.
But with near-invisible poll numbers, Klobuchar—like her fellow senators, Cory Booker and Michael Bennet—has had to gamely endure broad hints from the press pack that she might find it more fruitful to try to build a model of Minneapolis out of matchsticks. In its politest form, the question, which all three candidates have been hearing with greater regularity as they near Thursday night’s debate in Houston (Booker and Klobuchar qualified; Bennet did not), is a variant of, “How do you plan to break through?”
When I, embarrassingly enough, asked just that question, Klobuchar checked off all the traditional answers stressing that it is still five months to the first primary; that future presidents like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were trailing in the polls at comparable points in 1975 and 1991; and that it is hard to see the fruits of “grassroots politics” immediately in the polls.
Just minutes before I chatted with Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren had electrified the convention with a stripped-down version of her stump speech. Before her, a wide swath of delegates and activists waved white thundersticks with the slogan, “Win with Warren.” The roughly 5,000 Democrats in the crowd represented a vast turnout for New Hampshire, but they are only a tiny fraction of the more than 250,000 voters likely to cast Democratic ballots on February 11, the date of the state’s primary.
Booker, after he spoke to 200 Democrats at Saint Anselm College in Manchester Friday night, faced similar questions from a skeptical press corps. He, too, invoked Carter and Clinton, and mentioned that Barack Obama had also trailed in the polls before surging in January 2008, only a few weeks before the first contests. “In fact,” the New Jersey senator said, “if you’re leading in the polls right now, you should worry.” Like Klobuchar, Booker stressed the long road to the primary. As he put it, “We don’t want to win the news cycle in August and September. We want to win the campaign here in 2020.”
These answers may sound like the desperation of a candidate, backed only by close relatives, holding up a tattered copy of the legendary wrong-call 1948 Chicago Tribune headline, “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.” Or equivalent to a hapless candidate, 40 points behind in all the surveys, who stubbornly insists, “The only poll that matters is on Election Day.”
But the truth—even though it flies in the face of all the glib certainties TV pundits are fond of proclaiming—is that Klobuchar and Booker are right. It is too soon to be writing off anyone with a credible record and proven history of winning elections (with the strong exception of Bill de Blasio and Tulsi Gabbard).
Sure, many handicappers are peddling the notion that the Democratic contest is already winnowed down to a three-way race (Joe Biden, Warren, and Bernie Sanders) or that it could become a five-way contest (if you consider Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg serious contenders). But I recall pundits declaring with voice-of-God certainty in late summer of 2015 that the only Republicans who could plausibly win the 2016 nomination were Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.
New Hampshire voters, in particular, are late deciders—and, even then, mercurial in their selections. Finding unswervingly committed Granite State primary voters is almost as hard as locating flood victims in Alabama.
“Most New Hampshire voters aren’t really paying attention yet,” said pollster Andy Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center. “I think there’s even less attention than usual right now because there’s less star power among the candidates running in the primary.” At this point in 2007, for example, Obama and Hillary Clinton were drawing such large crowds in New Hampshire that the only spaces large enough to accommodate them were high-school gyms.
The evidence supports Smith’s impressionistic conclusions. The last CNN 2020 New Hampshire Primary Poll in mid-July, conducted by Smith and his colleagues at the University of New Hampshire, found that 61 percent of likely Democratic primary voters were undecided and another 20 percent were leaners.
Even so, the TV networks—and too many of my print colleagues—would rather ballyhoo the shallow preferences of voters who are, in truth, still undecided than admit how much of the 2020 campaign is still in flux. CBS News has even gone to absurd lengths to predict the results; it is peddling an exclusive convention delegate trackerevanescent poll numbers to estimate where candidates will stand after the first 18 primaries and caucuses in February and early March are finished.
What’s next for the impatient hucksters at CBS? Announcing the vice-presidential nominee next week and laying out the 2021 cabinet by Halloween?
The secret of winning a presidential nomination—or coming tantalizingly close—lies in peaking at the right moment. Kathy Sullivan, the former chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party who is still (“my list is down to seven”) undecided, said, “Everyone I talk to about Booker asks, ‘When’s he going to pop?’ But it’s a lot better to pop in January than to pop in August.”
Former Colorado Senator Gary Hart is the enduring example of an out-of-nowhere Democratic candidate roaring to victory in the New Hampshire primary by upending a popular, but less than charismatic, former vice president. The year was 1984 and the esteemed ex-V.P. was Walter Mondale.
Both men are wading into the presidential race this cycle. Mondale has endorsed Klobuchar, who hails from his home state, and with a perfect sense of timing and poetry, Bennet brought the 82-year-old Hart, now blessed with flowing white hair, to New Hampshire to campaign with him over the weekend. As Hart said to about 100 would-be Bennet supporters after the convention this past weekend, “What was accomplished here by a not very well-known senator is one of the great upsets in political history.”
In 1984, I covered that race as the lead political writer for Newsweek, which in those days went to press on a Saturday night. The weekend before the primary, I wrote, “Mondale’s lead in New Hampshire appears unassailable.” By Tuesday, with my cocksure prediction sitting in subscribers’ mailboxes, the network exit polls had leaked. They correctly showed Hart winning the state by a double-digit margin. As I arrived at my hotel (the late-lamented Sheraton Wayfarer), the first person I saw was a colleague from a rival magazine. His opening words have stayed with me these last 35 years: “You blew it.” That mortifying moment has shaped the way I cover politics to this day, and my fellow journalists could learn from it.
At a Saturday press conference before the state convention, I asked Hart how he kept going in early 1984 as his chances were widely belittled by journalists like me.
“With fortitude,” he replied with a laugh, before adding, “Seeking the presidency of the United States is one of the most difficult projects that any human being—man or woman—can undertake. It takes more physical, mental, spiritual determination than almost any other project that anyone can undertake. If you don’t have that, you shouldn’t be in the race.”
Patience and Fortitude are the names of the two stone lions in front of the New York Public Library. They are also the qualities that the press corps—as well as candidates like Bennet, Booker, and Klobuchar—will need in abundance to cover the confounding 2020 primary race in Iowa, New Hampshire, and beyond.