MANCHESTER, N.H. – Sen. Elizabeth Warren started her campaign with a big gamble: She’d build a huge organization in Iowa that would power her to victory there, propelling her to a win in New Hampshire and giving her unstoppable momentum to the Democratic nomination.
Disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire now suggest the gamble has failed. And the rapidly shifting landscape has left the reeling Warren campaign with one more last-ditch bet: that in a party increasingly divided between democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders and centrists like Pete Buttigieg, she can pitch herself as the one person to bring the sides together.
“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; and seeking to steadily win delegates even in states where she does not come in first.
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 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.
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.
For a time, Warren seemed to be 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 college-educated and moderate 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, which 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.”