CONCORD, N.H. — Two days before a once-mission-critical primary in a state she neighbors, Sen. Elizabeth Warren — typically exceptional at holding a room — had not finished speaking when something unusual happened: Dozens of voters began filtering out of the middle school gym she had reserved.
Campaign staff strained to enlist prospective volunteers on their way to their cars. “Someone, anyone,” one organizer called out as departing guests stepped around him.
And when Warren wound toward her big finish, the go-out-and-get-’em kicker in these urgent final hours, her mind wandered accidentally to home.
“It’s up to you, Massachusetts, to decide what to do,” Warren instructed.
Supporters looked back at her, murmuring. She realized why. “And to the people of New Hampshire!” she amended.
On the eve of a contest she had hoped to win (and probably will not, according to polls) — one week removed from a caucus she had hoped to win (and certainly did not, according to Iowans) — Warren has arrived, almost imperceptibly, at a precarious stage.
In a primary adjoining her own state, it is Sen. Bernie Sanders, another New Englander, and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who are leading in polls. Hoping to turn New Hampshire into a two-person race, the pair have been slinging fresh insults: Buttigieg suggested Monday that nominating Sanders would “risk alienating Americans at this critical moment.” Sanders, contrasting his online fundraising army to Buttigieg’s cadre of high-dollar donors, said he would not “go to rich people’s homes and get advice from millionaires and billionaires.” And after a chaotic virtual tie in Iowa, both campaigns Monday requested a recanvass of certain caucus precincts.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, another fallen front-runner, looked past New Hampshire in a phone call Monday to supporters in South Carolina, where his popularity with black voters is expected to make the state more hospitable to him than the first two. “Keep the faith,” he said at a field office in Salem, New Hampshire.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has edged up in polls after appraising Buttigieg as a “cool newcomer” seeking a megapromotion and insisting a “socialist” like Sanders should not lead the ticket. “We’re surging,” she told reporters, citing a Boston Globe-affiliated survey by name.
But Warren, who has largely avoided engaging her opponents, is making perhaps the riskiest bet available: changing very little, largely declining to alter a 2020 primary approach often premised on self-branding as a “fighter” in a policy context but less often in a political one.
She can appear at times to be campaigning in a time capsule delivered from last year, running the race on her terms, largely independent of the changing circumstances. Her riff on a wealth tax for the ultrarich still lands (“Just two cents!” her crowds chant, cheering the policy’s tagline). Her supporters still hold signs aloft with purpose (“Win with Warren!”).
But what if it is not enough?
“Yeah, I don’t know,” Warren told reporters in Concord, when pressed on the early exits in her audience. “It seemed like, to me, a pretty enthusiastic crowd.”
Many Warren admirers remain almost preternaturally calm about her electoral position, deciding after a year of semipermanent metapunditry from voters that this is not the time to overreact to disappointing news.
They cite what they see as a double standard in her treatment as a female candidate, observing that male candidates are less often held to account over squishy policy details or minor missteps, while also choosing to believe in Warren’s gentle reminders that “women are outperforming men” in some recent competitive elections.
“She’s hanging in there,” said Lisa Nicholson, 60, from Hopkinton, New Hampshire, waiting for Warren on Sunday afternoon.
“I thought she’d be higher up,” admitted Cathy Litchfield, 59, from Concord. “But she’ll be in the top three, and that’s all you really need right now.”
Andrea Olmstead, 71, a Bostonian who traveled to see Warren in Manchester, was one of many women to invoke the sting of Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016, suggesting that Warren’s campaign had been a kind of balm for hope-seeking women in the Trump age.
“Her life has been my life in a way — all women our age,” Olmstead said, wearing an “I Love Lizzie” button from Warren’s 2012 Senate race, for which she volunteered. “We’ve lived through the things she’s lived through. It’s a parallel journey.”
Olmstead was disinclined to consider the possibility of another letdown.
“Third in Iowa is not bad,” she said. “There are more states to go.”
There are. But at a most inconvenient moment, Warren finds herself a candidate in-between, neither surging nor necessarily free-falling, struggling to channel the zeal that long powered her last year but also careful not to project any outward alarm to her slice of an often skittish Democratic electorate.
Allies are imagining a win-without-winning-yet path to the nomination, arguing that placing first in any state this month is not essential in a field so unsettled that merely surviving into March could suffice for now. It is a theory floated every four years by faltering campaigns in recent presidential cycles, without ultimate success. But their case: There is no front-runner with an overpowering coalition and Michael R. Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York mayor, will provide a useful foil for Warren’s familiar crusade against big money once he begins competing in states next month.
Warren’s rallies can often approximate the sheen of a winner’s: the nods from voters as she speaks about her Oklahoma youth; men in flannel shirts whoot-whooting for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; a boy with a blue crayon, coloring in the bubble letters on a sheet of paper reading “Dream Big, Fight Hard,” turning to clap when the adults clapped.
There are still superfans, like Don Lansing, 32, of Lebanon, New Hampshire, who waited for a photograph with Warren on Sunday evening in a shirt depicting no fewer than five pictures of himself with the candidate.
“She reminds me of every best teacher I ever had,” he said.
In high-stakes settings, Warren has made no major mistakes, turning in another solid if unmemorable debate performance last week while competitors claimed more attention and speaking time. In a signal of her peers’ view of her chances, Warren barely faced any criticism onstage.
Lately, Warren has taken to calling herself the unity candidate — a complicated messaging task for a senator whose political identity has registered more often for her unswerving progressive passions.
She has alluded to the “unwinnable fights” she has won in her life — transcending a working-class upbringing to excel in academia, flipping a Senate seat — as evidence of her viability as a general election option against President Donald Trump.
“There are a lot of folks who are going to talk about what’s not winnable, what can’t be done and definitely about who can’t do it,” Warren told supporters in Manchester. “They’re going to talk about it right up until we get in that fight, we persist and we win.”
If she can attract the small-dollar fundraising totals required to sustain a national bid, Warren’s team believes she can compete effectively in a primary of attrition. According to a memo from her campaign manager last month, Warren had more than 1,000 staff members on the ground in more than 30 states.
But after a year in which Warren so often set the pace of the primary, sending policy plans into orbit and selling puckish apparel like a “Billionaire Tears” coffee mug, some veterans of losing campaigns wonder if her best 2020 moments have passed.
“I don’t know where she can win,” said Adrienne Elrod, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Hillary Clinton, while adding that little about this primary can be predicted with confidence. “But if she continues to amass delegates in Super Tuesday states, she can continue to stay in this race.”
Knocking on doors in Manchester on Saturday with her husband, Bruce Mann, and her golden retriever, Bailey, who sniffed a local news microphone as he walked, the senator received a mixed reception.
“You’re on my shortlist,” a jogger told her, stopping briefly to chat.
Warren set off on her unity case. “There’s been a lot of good people in this race,” she said, trumpeting recent staff hires. “I want you to know, I’ve put as many of them as I could into my campaign.”
Up the street, a Sanders canvasser walked by a home with signs out front for Klobuchar and Buttigieg.
Someone in a passing car recognized Warren as she stepped toward the next address. He lowered the window to announce himself: