The efforts to shift the focus to a national one come as four candidates — former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg — remain in a tight cluster in Iowa. Sanders and Biden are holding a narrow advantage in New Hampshire.
“The four early states contests are just the beginning,” Warren’s campaign manager, Roger Lau, wrote in a memo distributed to supporters Friday. The text appeared under a graphic showing images of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, which all caucus or vote in February, under a caption noting those states only award 155 delegates, or “3.9% of the total,” a statistic that was underlined in red.
The memo was particularly striking because of the importance the Warren campaign has long placed on a strong showing in Iowa, where it has worked for a year to build what even other campaigns have acknowledged is the strongest organization.
Lau made no predictions about Warren’s finish in Iowa or New Hampshire, but instead forecast that the contest will be competitive through at least March 3, or “Super Tuesday,” when 14 states will vote in primaries and roughly 34 percent of the pledged delegates are awarded.
To clinch the Democratic nomination, a candidate will need to win a majority of the 3,979 pledged delegates that are up for grabs this spring. (The Democratic Party has an additional 760 or so superdelegates who can vote if no candidate wins the majority on the first ballot at its July convention.)
“We expect this to be a long nomination fight and have built our campaign to sustain well past Super Tuesday and stay resilient no matter what breathless media narratives come when voting begins,” Lau wrote.
Biden’s camp has similarly tried to convince would-be supporters of his national strength, in case he demonstrates early weakness. Last year, his campaign sought to make a case that he did not have to win Iowa or New Hampshire, pointing to his strengths in more diverse Nevada and South Carolina, the third and fourth states to vote.
In New Hampshire on Friday, the former vice president asked the crowd to look beyond the early states. He insisted he is the candidate most likely to beat Trump in general election battlegrounds, and that his coattails would help Democrats across the country get elected.
“And we not only have to beat Donald Trump, as was pointed out earlier, we have to win in states that will win us back the United States Senate,” Biden said in Claremont. “Because, folks, we can do that. We have to be able to win in North Carolina. We have to be able to win Georgia senate seats. And in Arizona. Not just in my home state of Pennsylvania.”
A new 30-second Biden ad, which began airing Friday in Iowa, devoted several seconds to screens of polling data and graphs showing Biden leading Trump in battleground states — perhaps the most visual appeal yet to undecided Iowans who have become pundit-like as they weigh who to support on Feb. 3.
“This is no time to take a risk. We need our strongest candidate,” the ad stated. “So let’s nominate the Democrat Trump fears the most. Vote Biden. Beat Trump.”
Sanders, who last fall rolled out “Bernie Beats Trump” messaging focused on the general election, also has a robust operation for the next phase of the primary, particularly in California, which awards more than 400 delegates. He and any other candidates who stay in the race past February also will have to contend with former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, who sidestepped the early contests but is spending hundreds of millions of dollars from his own fortune to be competitive starting in the March primaries.
While some of his competitors have downplayed the role Iowa could have in their candidacies, Buttigieg has been open about the need to do well there. Asked about his struggles to build support in South Carolina and early voting states beyond Iowa, Buttigieg said Wednesday that he knows his success elsewhere is tied directly to what happens in Iowa.
“A lot can happen in those final days, especially because there are going to be a lot of folks there looking to see what we candidates can demonstrate and prove right here [in Iowa],” Buttigieg said. “It’s a whole new chapter of the campaign on the ground in South Carolina — in Nevada for that matter, too — after we’ve been able to demonstrate our strength in a place like Iowa and New Hampshire.”
Asked many times if he needs to win in Iowa to demonstrate that strength, Buttigieg said, “I’m not going to create a goal post.”
“What I will say is we’ve got to do well here in Iowa because it’s our first opportunity to actually demonstrate that we’re able to win,” he said.
In town halls, Buttigieg has emphasized that the idea he is contending at all is remarkable, regardless of what happens next — often recalling the days when no one could pronounce his name — while also in recent weeks explicitly telling voters that “winning the Iowa caucuses” is possible.
In fundraising emails, Buttigieg has alternated between confidence he can “win” Iowa, without specifying exactly what that would look like, and suggesting he is facing much stronger forces in his quest for the nomination, accusing Sanders of using “dark money groups” to support his candidacy.
Perhaps more than any other candidate, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) is banking on a strong finish in Iowa to remain competitive in the race — not only for the boost it would give her, but because she has repeatedly marketed herself as a pragmatist who can win over both rural and suburban voters in Midwestern states. However, the latest Des Moines Register poll showed her with only 6 percent support in Iowa, significantly below the four front-runners who are all clustered between 15 and 20 percent.
Her campaign, meanwhile, has pointed to the number of caucus-goers who remain undecided, and has been actively pursuing state officials who formerly endorsed Sen. Cory Booker, who dropped out earlier this month. At least one former Booker supporter, Iowa state Rep. Charlie McConkey, has since said he is switching to Klobuchar.
Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Chelsea Janes, Holly Bailey and Matt Viser contributed to this report.