PORTSMOUTH, N.H. - On the eve of Tuesday's New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary, hundreds of Democrats packed a Unitarian church in this coastal city to listen to Sen. Elizabeth Warren make her final case.
With her usual energy and bounce, Warren, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, told them she's the candidate who can take the "fight" to President Donald Trump. Pews were filled. People cheered. A rainbow flag hung from from a balcony in the back. As Warren ripped Trump, the influence of money in politics and corruption with ease and clarity, the scene gave the impression of a liberal to be reckoned with.
But in conversations with several of the New Hampshire voters at Warren's last get-out-the-vote event before voting started, it was clear they weren't all fully committed. Some were last-minute shopping, and with Warren sliding in the polls, they were also considering the front-runner, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and the two surging Midwesterners, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Richard Lemmerman, a 60-year-old investor from Hampton, New Hampshire, sitting toward the back of the town hall, said he'd probably write in his vote for billionaire former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, calling him the "strongest possibility to beat Trump."
As for Warren?
"She'd make a good secretary of State, a great attorney general. I just don't think she's going to be a good president," Lemmerman said.
New Hampshire voters' lack of enthusiasm showed in Warren's final standing, a disappointing, distant fourth place, at 9.2%, not even mustering double-digits, and well below Sanders' first-place 25.8%, Buttigieg's 24.5% and Klobuchar's 19.9%. After earning eight national delegates in Iowa, she left New Hampshire with zero.
Months ago, this would have been a shocking outcome for a candidate from a neighboring state who at one time led nationally and in New Hampshire. But since a rocky October rollout of her plan to pay for Medicare for All, Warren has lost traction and hasn't rebounded. She finished a disappointing third in Iowa, where she invested significant resources. Perhaps most amazing of all, her poor showing in New Hampshire was ultimately not a surprise after several days of weak polling.
Following the latest setback, Warren vowed to "fight back" as her campaign takes the long-view, noting 98% of Democrats still haven't voted and insisting she's the "consensus choice of the widest coalition of Democrats." But with early voting already underway in some Super Tuesday states, and the Nevada caucuses looming in a week, a reboot is needed quickly.
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"It is a very fluid field, and even knocking on doors in Iowa and New Hampshire right up until Election Day, people were still making up their minds," said Michelle Wu, a Boston City Councilor at-large and Warren supporter who campaigned for her both states. "Voters are really wanting to think about November. That means that it will be a long race and a long primary, and Elizabeth's operation is built for the long haul."
Where Warren's votes peeled away
Warren's New Hampshire collapse came from competing sides. Her perceived strength among college-educated Democrats fell apart with some in this camp choosing the centrist, unity-driven messages of Klobuchar and Buttigieg over Warren's pitch to "fight" Wall Street and drug companies, "disrupt" money in politics and not just "nibble around the edges."
At the same time, Warren lost the party's far left, in particular young progressives, overwhelmingly to Sanders. These were the voters most likely to gravitate toward Warren's mantra of "big structural change," but in Sanders, they picked a democratic socialist offering much the same vision. Warren received votes from just 6% of New Hampshire voters 18 to 29, according to exit polls from Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life/CIRCLE, while Sanders got a whopping 51% and Buttigieg received 20%.
In Portsmouth, an ultra-blue city that on paper should have been comfortable ground for Warren, she came in fourth, with just 12.9% of the vote. She even finished behind the same trio of Sanders, Buttigieg and Klobuchar in highly educated Hanover, home of Dartmouth College, with 18%. Warren, a former Harvard law professor, was unable to place in the top three in New Hampshire's Ivy League town.
Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic campaign operative who ran former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's losing presidential bid in 2004, said Warren, along with other campaigns, "underestimated how tough it is to run in a multi-candidate field." He said they viewed the race through the lens of the last few cycles, which had few viable contenders.
"In the end, as people start to focus on who's the best progressive that's got a chanceof going the whole way, Bernie was winning that battle," Trippi said. "When it came to who was moving at the end among women who really wanted to see a woman get the nomination ... it starts to go to Amy.
"She was just drifting down, as was Biden, and the others were basically gaining ground at her expense."
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Warren is perhaps the most disciplined of all the candidates on the stump, often tracing her humble upbringing in Oklahoma and challenges as a divorced mother to explain how it shaped her economic views. "I've got a plan for that," she's known to say as she dives into one of her many policy proposals. Her campaign is also credited with having among the more robust ground organizations.
On the trail in New Hampshire, Warren appeared to tweak her message in the final stretch, casting herself not just as a lifelong fighter but also the candidate who can "pull our party together" in November. It seemed like an attempt to differentiate herself from Sanders, who has faced questions about coalescing all Democratic factions against Trump. She told an audience last week in Nashua, New Hampshire, "We cannot repeat another 2016."
But hurting Warren, according to Rachel Bitecofer, a political scientist and assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, is that the far-left progressive faction in 2020 has proven smaller than in 2016.
In New Hampshire, the two so-called "progressive lane" candidates, Sanders and Warren, accounted for only 35% of the overall vote. Bitecofer said more moderates and independents are taking part in the Democratic primary than in past years, including in New Hampshire, where voters registered as "undeclared" could take part.
"Her problem is there's really two people in that progressive faction, but the amount of votes to divide between them is smaller and so she's really struggling," Bitecofer said.
Neil Levesque, director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, said New Hampshire voters put Warren "on a shelf" when she struggled with her Medicare for All explanation. While they remained uncommitted, Sanders' steady rise and Klobuchar's debate performance last week eroded her support, he said.
More so than ideology, Levesque said New Hampshire voters consider traits like personality, style, electability and momentum.
"She worked very hard, she's an excellent candidate, great staff," he said. "Everything was there. But sometimes it just doesn't add up."
'We are in a very frothy place'
Despite not meeting expectations through two contests, Warren is third in the overall delegate count, with 8, behind Buttigieg, 22, and Sanders, 21, but ahead of the suddenly hot Klobuchar, 7.
The day after the New Hampshire defeat, the Warren campaign issued an email to supporters that didn't sugarcoat the outcome: "Let's face it: Last night didn't go the way we wanted it to go," it began, later encouraging supporters to "take a moment and feel that pain" but to press on.
"Take a walk around the block, eat an extra piece of chocolate, hug your pet, adopt a pet, watch videos of cats and dogs who are friends, call a friend - whatever works," the email read. "But once you've let it all out, take a deep breath, square your shoulders, and make a plan - a plan to fight back and win. A plan to help make sure that we won't have to feel this way again."
Wednesday evening, Warren made the rounds on cable television networks to answer questions about her setback in New Hampshire, where as recently as November she was polling ahead, and how she plans to get back in the race.
Warren told CNN's Anderson Cooper that her campaign had raised $5 million since the Iowa caucuses. But she didn't have an explanation why her message did not resonate in New Hampshire.
"I don't," Warren said. "But I can tell you this: I can tell you that it's what I fight for. And I'm going to get out there and keep fighting for it and keep talking about it. I think we are in a very frothy place right now, but do keep in mind, we've only heard from two states. We have 98 percent of our states and territories left to go."
In the days leading up to Tuesday's primary, Warren touted the long-term viability of the campaign when asked about the outlook New Hampshire, pointing to some 1,000 campaign workers she has in 31 states.
But money could be a problem following back-to-back tough losses. Advertising Analytics reported that Warren cut television ad spending in South Carolina but is maintaining a television presence in Nevada through the Feb. 22 Nevada caucuses.
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"I need to level with you," Warren said in a campaign video released Wednesday seeking donations. "Our movement needs critical funds so I can remain competitive in this race through Super Tuesday."
Campaign manager critiques opponents
Hours before polls closed Tuesday, Warren's campaign manager Roger Lau sent out a campaign memo that predicted the race would stay "wide open" through voting in Nevada (Feb. 22) and South Carolina (Feb. 29).
"People who are predicting what will happen a week from now are the same people who a year ago predicted that Beto O'Rourke was a frontrunner for the nomination," Lau wrote.
He offered critiques of several candidates. Sanders has a ceiling that's "significantly lower" than four years ago. Former Vice President Joe Biden has started to lose support from African American and senior voters, his two greatest strengths. Buttigieg's "most significant challenge is yet to come," Lau said, as the primary moves to more diverse states. Bloomberg will "soon be forced to actually debate his record, rather than hiding behind millions in TV ads." He said Klobuchar lacks campaign infrastructure for the long haul.
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Charting the course forward, Lau said the Warren campaign's internal projections show her performing at the 15% delegate threshold in 108 of 165 congressional districts on Super Tuesday March 3, when 14 states go to the polls, topped only by Sanders and Biden.
"It's not a straightforward narrative captured by glancing at a map, and the process won't be decided by the simple horse race numbers in clickbait headlines," he wrote.
But to show momentum into Super Tuesday, Warren desperately needs a strong performance in Nevada - perhaps first or second - where a USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll in January showed her in third place at 11%, behind Biden, 19% and Sanders, 18%.
Warren began her push in Nevada by going on offense against Sanders. It came after the the Culinary Union in Nevada called out Sanders' supporters as having "viciously attacked" union members for opposing the Vermont senator's health care plan.
"No one should attack @Culinary226 and its members for fighting hard for themselves and their families," Warren tweeted. "Like them, I want to see every American get high-quality and affordable health care - and I'm committed to working with them to achieve that goal."
No one should attack @Culinary226 and its members for fighting hard for themselves and their families. Like them, I want to see every American get high-quality and affordable health care-and I'm committed to working with them to achieve that goal. https://t.co/onVqAcZRoB
- Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) February 13, 2020
The senator has an opportunity to shift the race on Feb. 19, when the next televised debate of the primary takes place in Las Vegas. Klobuchar used the debate in New Hampshire to mount her late surge.
But once a candidate starts fading in a large field, it's "really tough to turn that around," Trippi said.
He knows first-hand after Dean, for months the front-runner in 2004, nose-dived after Iowa and never regained momentum. He applauded Warren's strong campaign organization, which he said "pushed the envelope" in a lot of strategies. But he said even that could start working against her by turning out supporters of her opponents.
"Everybody that her campaign has worked tirelessly to identify as Warren supporters after Iowa and New Hampshire, I can guarantee you half of them aren't for her anymore," Trippi said. "Now she's turning out two people, one of whom is going to vote against her, one who is going to vote for her because her organization is that freaking good.
"Her strength is she's got this great organization, but it's actually of little use. That alone won't turn it."
Reach Joey Garrison and on Twitter @joeygarrison.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Elizabeth Warren's New Hampshire stumble and her plan to fight back