MANCHESTER, N.H. — If there is one way that Representative Seth Moulton of Salem has immediately differentiated himself from the 18 other Democrats seeking the 2020 presidential nomination so far, it’s the laid-back way he is campaigning.
Most candidates have made a traditional campaign announcement in front of supporters in their home state before holding large, high-energy rallies in early presidential primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
In contrast, Moulton launched his effort with a media campaign in New York City. And when he headed to New Hampshire on Tuesday, his first actual event was spending two hours spreading mulch and helping with the food pantry at a halfway house for veterans. His newly named campaign manager wore a plaid shirt and folded clothes.
In all, Moulton interacted and ate pizza with approximately 10 people, and at least one was barred from voting because he was still serving a sentence for a nonviolent crime. Another one was a prominent local supporter of President Trump.
Next, Moulton participated a round table at a service organization in Concord with approximately 20 people. One of the panelists was a volunteer for the Cory Booker campaign.
“This is probably not the best way to roll out a presidential campaign in 2019,” said Wayne Lesperance, a New England College political science professor. “Someone like Moulton needs get himself in front of large audiences quickly, and in New Hampshire there are hundreds of activists gladly showing up for even the longshots.”
Moulton said the subdued first day of his campaign was supposed to send a larger message.
“You cannot have 10 people voting for you and win the election, but I think the values and the principles here are important,” Moulton said in an interview. “The job I am applying for is fundamentally a job about serving the country, and that is something that Donald Trump doesn’t understand. He is not in the Oval Office to serve the country, but to serve himself.”
He was set to wrap up his New Hampshire visit with more traditional settings: a taped town hall event for WMUR-TV and an appearance at the traditional Politics and Eggs breakfast.
After that, Moulton was scheduled to visit South Carolina, where he will help clean a beach, and Des Moines, where he will participate in a different service project by handing out books. Then it would be off to Los Angeles to tape podcasts and raise money before speaking to veterans in Las Vegas.
In some ways, Moulton’s effort mirrors the successful plan of John McCain, who started his 2000 New Hampshire campaign by meeting first with small groups of veterans and used that network to come from nowhere to win the primary by 19 points.
Like McCain, he is stressing service, his political outsider status, and foreign policy, which he says is a focal point of his campaign when other rivals are stressing domestic policy like health care and education.
“The No. 1 thing that I hear from Democrats on the campaign trail is that we need to defeat Donald Trump. And so we have got to confront him on the places where he is weakest, and he is weak as a commander in chief,” Moulton said. “He is weak on foreign policy. He is cozying up to dictators and enemies of the United States and abandoning our allies.”
But Moulton does not have the luxury of time that McCain did to campaign that way, largely because of how the 2020 Democratic primary is structured.
In just eight weeks, Moulton faces a deadline to qualify for the first debates in June by either meeting a polling threshold or by getting at least 65,000 donors to his campaign from at least 20 states.
Moulton said his campaign will be driven by the grass roots, and when he woke up Tuesday morning as an actual presidential candidate, “Of course it felt a little bit different.” But if spreading mulch in the first 10 minutes of his first presidential event was a metaphor for anything, he said it was proof that his campaign is willing “to get our hands dirty and showing that we are willing to get to work and meet voters where they are.”