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Politics and Government

Michael Bennet ends his presidential campaign after disappointing New Hampshire finish

The Colorado Democrat placed his White House hopes with the Granite State, but appeared to be headed for a near-last finish in Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet poses for a photo in New Hampshire's Capitol Building visitor center.(Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado’s Sen. Michael Bennet ended his improbable bid for the White House on Tuesday after a disappointing finish in the New Hampshire primary, where he bet his campaign’s future but won less than a thousand votes.

Bennet announced his decision at a campaign event in Concord shortly after the polls closed and as results showed him last among active candidates in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

“Tonight is not going to be our night,” Bennet said. “But let me say this to New Hampshire: You may see me once again.”

Bennet’s political future is the subject of much speculation as he courted comparisons to former Colorado U.S. Sen. Gary Hart, who lost his first Democratic bid for president in 1984 only to emerge as the top contender four years later. Bennet, 55, landed on the short list for a cabinet post in President Barack Obama’s administration, and if Democrats win in November, the two-term senator’s name is likely to emerge again as a possibility for an administration job.

“I feel nothing but joy tonight as we conclude this particular campaign, and this particular chapter,” Bennet told supporters. “I am going to do absolutely everything I can do as one human being to make sure that Donald Trump is a one-term president. I will support the nominee of my party no matter who it is to make sure that we defeat Donald Trump.”

Ahead of primary day, Bennet said his campaign needed to finish in the top three or four candidates to continue. As of 9 a.m. EDT on Wednesday, and with 89% of the vote tallied, Bennet had just 916 votes, or a 0.3% share, according to The New York Times, last among active candidates.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who won the New Hampshire primary in 2016, led with more than a quarter of the vote. The next top finishers were Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet meets a group of supporters outside New Hampshire’s State Capitol Building on Nov. 6, 2019. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

Bennet struggled to gain traction in a crowded field

Throughout his 9-month campaign, launched after being treated for prostate cancer, Bennet struggled for attention in a field with better-known and better-funded candidates. 

He spent much of his energy trying to meet the Democratic National Committee’s threshold to appear on the debate stage. A self-defeating cycle took hold as he spent big money in Iowa — nearly $850,000 on TV ads — to boost poll numbers to qualify for the debates and give confidence to donors. But in September, he was running short on cash with little progress to show. 

Months before the vote, Bennet’s campaign abandoned any hopes to win delegates at the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses.

Instead, they shifted their focus to New Hampshire, which offered great promise for Bennet, in part because it’s not unlike Colorado.

It’s considered a purple state, where moderates often thrive and independents can vote in the primary. The intimate nature of its politics typically rewards candidates who connect with voters on a personal level.

It’s also a state that doesn’t mind bucking the trend to support outsiders, as it did in 2008 when voters opted for Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama and in 2016 when U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders defeated Clinton. 

Bennet poured his energy into New Hampshire, moving staff and money to the state. He attended 50 town halls there in the final weeks of his campaign, even when the impeachment trial kept him from the trail. He cast himself as the alternative to Sanders and Warren, a pragmatist who supported a public option rather than the end to private insurance with “Medicare for All.”

MORE: What a viral photo says about Michael Bennet’s presidential campaign in Iowa, and his chances in New Hampshire

His message struck the right tone with plenty of voters and he won prominent endorsements from local elected officials and activists. But he never could match his rivals. The final polls ahead of the primary showed Bennet near the bottom at 2% or less.

And those poll numbers appeared to prove to be an accurate predictor of Tuesday’s results. As the first number poured in, Bennet’s vote total was below the number of votes cast for write-in candidates. 

“Michael Bennet is one of those people who on paper has done everything right to be in line for the presidency and probably in any other cycle governors and people like Michael Bennet would have been considered by voters,” said Marie Logsden, a strategist to John Hickenlooper when he ran for president who now advises Michael Bloomberg’s campaign in Colorado.

The top issue on the minds of New Hampshire voters is which Democratic candidate could defeat President Donald Trump, and the candidates with greater celebrity won more attention and more votes. 

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet talks to a civics class on April 10, 2019, at Nashua High School South in New Hampshire during a campaign trip. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

During a visit to New Hampshire just weeks before he entered the race, Bennet told The Colorado Sun electability is the ultimate question in the race, but acknowledged his campaign message was different from his rivals and it wouldn’t “be an easy case to make in a Democratic primary.”

“I think I have the chance to win,” he said in an interview at an event in Concord, the same town where he ended his campaign. “I don’t think that’s obvious to a lot of people today. But when you look at the way these campaigns have gone over these years, it’s hard to predict — we seldom predict at the beginning who’s there standing at the end.”

Seth Masket, the director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, traveled to New Hampshire for the primary and found support for Bennet. Just not the amount needed to break through.

“He has some supporters in New Hampshire — he really devoted everything in his presidential campaign to his state,” Masket said. “But ultimately he jumped into a very crowded field that didn’t seem to be looking for him specifically.”

Bennet’s early cash infusion into Iowa to boost poll numbers became a fatal error. When Bennet pivoted to New Hampshire, his campaign ran short on money. His campaign spent $61,000 to air 71 ads through Feb. 5, according to one analysis, a fraction of the millions spent by his competitors.

In the speech ending his campaign, Bennet vowed to campaign for U.S. Senate candidates around the country to try and win back a Democratic majority in the chamber. He also urged his supporters to keep working toward a better democracy. 

“I want you to be optimistic tonight,” he said. “This is in our hands. It is in our hands.”

Updated 7:30 a.m. Feb. 12, 2020: This story was updated to include the latest results in the New Hampshire primary vote count.

Rising Sun