CONCORD, NH – Bernie Sanders rallied hundreds of supporters outside the New Hampshire capital when the senator formally filed to compete in the state's first-in-the-nation presidential primary. A howling crowd cheered South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg as he walked through the statehouse to file his paperwork.
When it was Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet's turn, he wound up with about a dozen supporters and a pep talk from Secretary of State Bill Gardner, the dean of the New Hampshire primary.
"Giving the little guy a chance, that's what it's about," Gardner assured Bennet, who sits at about 1% in most polls.
Voters cast ballots in less than three months, and the Democratic primary is still crowded with little guys. Roughly a half-dozen candidates in the very bottom tier of the Democratic presidential primary are soldiering on, hoping that even after months of campaigning without catching fire that there's still a chance. Their resolve reflects, in part, some Democrats' insistence that the lineup of top contenders is deeply flawed and the race is primed for some late twists and turns.
"I truly believe that that person is as likely to be someone polling at 1% today as it is to be the people that are leading in the race today," Bennet told reporters after filing his paperwork. "Stranger things have happened than that."
Candidates like Bennet have some reason for optimism. Polls show many Democratic voters, even in early-voting states, have not made up their minds. In Iowa, the first state to weigh in, the front of the pack is crowded, another sign of ambiguity, some argue. Worries about the strength of the front-runners prompted Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York mayor, to move toward a bid, threatening to expand the field just as the party thought it would be winnowing.
Some higher-profile aspirants, including New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand or former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, weren't able to stick it out, after months of poor polling and lackluster fundraising. Some middle-tier candidates, meanwhile, have had to scale back their operations. California Sen. Kamala Harris pulled staff from New Hampshire this past week, while former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro cut positions there and in early-voting South Carolina.
But Bennet and others seemed to have prepared for a long, very slow burn. Bennet and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock never expected to raise much money and built small-scale operations that could carry them until the first part of February, when Iowa and then New Hampshire vote.
"Everybody goes up and down, and what I need to be is organizing and catching fire as voting starts," said Bullock, another candidate mired in the bottom tier who has announced an initial $500,000 advertising campaign in Iowa.
Bennet and Bullock stand out in the crowded bottom tier as two well-regarded moderate politicians who got into the race late — in May — and appear to have the same strategy: wait for former Vice President Joe Biden's support to collapse and hope they're the best centrist standing. A Bloomberg bid would immediately add another contender — and millions of dollars — to the competition on that front, though the former mayor's team says he will likely stay out of early states.
Other perennial 1% polling candidates have plans that are far less clear. They include spiritualist and best-selling author Marianne Williamson, who moved from Los Angeles to Iowa for the race; former Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak, who just concluded a walk across New Hampshire to attempt to draw attention to his campaign; and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, a wealthy businessman who is self-funding much of his race.
Delaney explained his continued campaign with a "why not?" rationale. After millions spent and countless hours of time, "it just seems kind of crazy for me to get out before the caucus," he said.
Looking for hope, Bennet has clung to the example of Gary Hart, a U.S. senator from Colorado who was considered a longshot White House hopeful in 1984 when he stunned the political world by winning New Hampshire. Hart, whose picture is on the wall of Gardner's office, has endorsed Bennet and recently wrote an opinion piece for USA Today urging people not to write off his younger protege.
Hart, however, was not shut out of most of the primary debates, as Bennet and Bullock have been this year. The Democratic National Committee's increasingly rigorous polling and fundraising criteria are a new attempt to shrink a historically large field. And Hart, in the end, found there were limits to what an underdog can achieve in a presidential primary. He ultimately lost his bid for the nomination to Walter Mondale, the party's former vice president and heir apparent. (Hart's 1988 campaign for the nomination was undone by a sex scandal.)
Still, Bennet's team notes that there has been no dominating political presence in their party's primary, like Mondale or Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were in 2008.
"This is the most unsettled field ever," said Craig Hughes, a top Bennet strategist. "The dynamics are unlike anything we've ever seen."
Hughes proudly noted the one sign of movement in the race: The Bennet campaign is shopping for new office space as it expands in New Hampshire. One of the spots it toured last week had just been vacated by the formerly top-tier Harris campaign.
Riccardi reported from Denver.