Gillibrand is a United States senator from New York, and this is the best she can do. A mess, maybe. But it’s no more of a mess than at least a dozen other candidates who are underperforming just as much, or worse. If all the candidates who, like Gillibrand, haven’t broken 2 percent in the polls were subject to as much coverage about how terribly they were doing, there wouldn’t be room for coverage of anything else.
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She and her aides say it’s not as bad as it seems: They think the race will look different in the fall. That’s when most of her compatriots in the zero to 1 percent range will likely run out of campaign cash and be forced to drop out. Meanwhile, she’ll be hanging in there with the $10 million nest egg she transferred from her Senate account—more than most of the lesser-known candidates are going to raise during their entire presidential campaign—on top of whatever she raises in between. In a smaller field, she’s confident that she’ll stand out more, and her won’t-ever-stop determination is going to get her there. “As long as she’s got money for a bus ticket in Iowa, she’s in it to win it,” said a person close to her campaign who asked not to be named to discuss internal campaign strategy. In a primary that will have already seemingly gone on forever, the theory goes, she’ll be fresh but also seasoned, and it won’t matter that she’s struggled to break through so far.
“There’s a national narrative ... that I think is unusual, but I will overcome that too,” Gillibrand told me, in a hotel conference room she commandeered here for an interview about trying to make sense of this primary process. “Whatever the rules of the road are, I play by the rules, and I figure it out.”
In the past, Gillibrand has figured it out. Thirteen years ago, she ran for a House seat no one thought she could win and squeaked by on the force of her insistence—and a leaked 911 call of the incumbent’s wife claiming he was “knocking her around the house.” Ten years ago, she was appointed to Hillary Clinton’s old Senate seat, when basically everyone in New York politics thought Gillibrand was a joke.
Since then, Gillibrand has won more votes in a New York election than anyone else in history, and was an effective inside player on several of the very few legislative battles that have actually gone the Democrats’ way in the past decade, including ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; passing the 9/11 health bill; and taking on sexual assault in the military.
“I win people over not only with sincerity and authenticity, but with a determination that they don’t see in other people,” she said. “People yes them to death. I don’t yes anyone to death. I actually come up with substantive solutions and then I pass them.”
This is the story Gillibrand tells about herself, and she tells it consistently: “I have always been underestimated—not only by potential opponents, but by the media,” she said in a 2010 interview, right after she’d dispatched what seemed likely to be a serious primary challenge from a former representative. “It will be the tale of the tortoise versus the hare, and I am the tortoise. Every campaign I’ve ever had, it’s always been part of my story, and I was not helped by many people who should have helped me,” she told me when we sat down briefly in April at a Friendly’s outside Concord, New Hampshire. “I am an underdog, and I’ve always been in every race I’ve ever had, and I win people over based on the merits,” she told me last week in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.