“We might be headed for another one of those long primary fights that last for months,” Warren (D-Mass.) said Tuesday at her election-night party. “We have to figure out as Democrats whether it will be a long, bitter rehash of the same old divides in our party, or whether we can find another way.”
The campaign and its allies have signaled it is seeking to retool in several ways beyond the strengthened unity pitch: renewing outreach to minority voters, especially women; signaling that Warren will tell more personal stories on the stump; seeking to steadily win delegates even in states where she does not come in first; and relying on potential allies such as the Culinary Union.
But time is short and money limited, and it’s not clear whether Warren, who for much of the past year seemed as good a prospect as anyone to win the Democratic nomination, can regain her momentum in the face of the rising strength of Sanders (I-Vt.), Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), with former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg waiting in the wings.
It’s a remarkable moment for a candidate who enjoyed a steady rise for much of last spring and summer, culminating in massive rallies in New York, Seattle, St. Paul, Minn., and elsewhere that gave her the veneer — and briefly the polling — of a front-runner. Her campaign says Warren is pushing ahead, but her finish in New Hampshire behind two Senate colleagues and a 38-year-old ex-mayor of South Bend, Ind., following a third-place finish in Iowa, narrows the path significantly.
Warren held a call with her campaign team after Tuesday’s defeat, trying to buck them up by saying, “These moments are when we find out why we’re on the fight,” according to a person familiar with the conversation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private call. She also huddled with her New Hampshire staff Tuesday evening to thank them.
Hours before the polls closed, Warren campaign manager Roger Lau released a rare memo filled with internal data, seeking to reassure supporters and donors that Warren could remain viable. Lau argued that the Democratic race remains highly fractured with no clear front-runner on the horizon, and that Warren has a good chance of emerging from the muddle.
Even without outright victories in many of the early primary states, he contended, Warren could steadily collect delegates from second- and third-place finishes.
Warren now heads into two contests, in Nevada and South Carolina, with little evidence that she has built momentum. She appears to be seeking an opening in both states by connecting particularly with minority female voters.
The senator on Wednesday canceled TV ads in both states and is set to be dark there starting Monday, according to Advertising Analytics, which tracks ad buying.
For a time, Warren seemed to splitting the support of the party’s liberal faction with Sanders while attracting backing from some centrists. But now Sanders has consolidated the left flank, while Buttigieg has become a favorite of the moderate and college-educated segments of the party.
That has left Warren without a sizable chunk of political turf to call her own. But supporters argue she has a chance to prove her viability with a strong performance on Super Tuesday, March 3, when more than a dozen states cast their votes and deliver the first big single-day trove of delegates.
“The big kahuna is Super Tuesday,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal political action committee that backs Warren. “So it’s important that she enters Super Tuesday with momentum. And she’ll have a friendly audience in the upcoming racially diverse states.”
But Warren has struggled to win the affections of nonwhite voters. She garnered support from just 9 percent of respondents in a Washington Post/IPSOS survey of black Democrats in January, compared with 48 percent for Biden and 20 percent for Sanders.
The poll suggested Warren has room to grow, since 20 percent said she would be their second choice and roughly the same number said they did not know enough about her to form an opinion.
Warren’s supporters say that gives her an opening. Green and others cited a performance by Warren at a forum on issues concerning black women, where Warren received by far the most enthusiastic response. But that event, sponsored by the group She the People, occurred last April, and in the ensuing 10 months there’s been little indication that the burst of enthusiasm for her has translated into support.
As the disappointing finish took shape Tuesday night, Warren’s team stayed quiet about any plans to overhaul her message or operation. Several top staffers milled around a buffet during the election-night party near the Manchester airport, but they disappeared after she spoke and did not talk to reporters.
“She’s got to have a moment,” said former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe. “You can’t just talk unity — that’s not going to do it for you.”
McAuliffe said the next debate will test Warren’s ability to show the toughness and grit that Democrats want in a candidate facing President Trump. Even some allies agree that Warren’s last debate performance, on a New Hampshire stage, was her worst showing to date. They predicted she would do better in Nevada on Feb. 19.
Meanwhile, small shifts have started to emerge. On Tuesday, Warren began to contrast herself more explicitly with Sanders, telling reporters she had a more pragmatic, less purist approach to governing.
Warren pointed to her vote in support of the North American Free Trade Agreement rewrite, which unions supported but environmentalists opposed.
“We voted, for example, in different ways on the trade deal,” she said. “Bernie said, ‘Not good enough,’ and I said, ‘I’ll take some help and fight for better.’ And I think that’s a difference.”
Some Warren allies suggested that her newfound willingness to contrast herself with Sanders reflected a recognition that she was more likely to poach voters who are now backing the moderate candidates than to win over Sanders loyalists.
Warren also has taken to telling more personal stories in recent days, including an account of a dispute she had with her mother over whether she should attend college.
“One of the things that I realized is that voters have a right to know, not just the policies, but also the heart of the person they’re going to pick for president of the United States,” Warren said. “So I put out all the policies, but I also put more of my heart out.”
Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this report.