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After Falling Short In Iowa And N.H., Warren's Path To Nomination Narrows

Elizabeth Warren speaks to supporters in N.H. before primary votes are counted and her fourth-place loss is declared. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Elizabeth Warren speaks to supporters in N.H. before primary votes are counted and her fourth-place loss is declared. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

After a disappointing fourth-place finish in the New Hampshire primary this week, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is facing some tough questions about her presidential aspirations.

Chief among them: Can her campaign regain its footing? Is there still a viable path for her to win the Democratic presidential nomination?

In politics, the narrative that defines a campaign is always important. At the moment, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has created a narrative that he is the front runner; former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s is that he is the ascendant moderate; and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s is that she is riding a wave of momentum.

Warren’s narrative right now is not a positive one: she was a front-runner, then lost that position. Following a third-place finish in Iowa, she had an even worse result in New Hampshire (of all places), the state right next door to her own. So clearly, her campaign is heading in the wrong direction — and that allows her critics to spin that narrative to their advantage.

“Officially, Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign is still going, [but] nobody believes that it really means anything,” declared Tucker Carlson, of Fox News, in the wake of the first-in-the-nation primary. “One thing is for certain: Warren is not running for president because she believes she can become president, because she can’t.”

It is probably not surprising to hear Carlson, a dedicated conservative, characterize Warren’s loss this way. But his narrative is not that far from what her Democratic opponents are whispering.

Warren Insists Campaign Is ‘Built For The Long Haul’

Warren is already working hard to recast her campaign, arguing she is the candidate best positioned to unify a fractured Democratic Party. On Tuesday night, even before all the votes were counted in New Hampshire, she told supporters that the campaign for the nomination had just begun and was still up for grabs.

“Americans in every part of the country are going to make their voices heard,” Warren declared to her cheering supporters, adding her “campaign is built for the long haul.”

Warren’s hopes are outlined in a strategy memo from her campaign director, Roger Lau, which was sent to supporters earlier this week.

“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 front runner for the nomination,” writes Lau. “After New Hampshire tonight, 98% of pledged delegates will still be up for grabs.”

According to Lau, “the road to the Democratic nomination is not paved with statewide winner-take-all victories.” The campaign hopes that in a fractured field of candidates, the weeks ahead will provide Warren with numerous opportunities to win delegates.

The good news for Warren is she has a large campaign operation, including a paid staff of more than 1,000 people spread out across 31 states. The bad news is that her vaunted organization was unable to deliver for her in Iowa and New Hampshire. In the wake of those two disappointing results, it is not clear if she will be able to continue to raise the money to keep it all in place.

Her campaign strategy memo argues her opponents have deep flaws of their own. It suggests former Vice President Joe Biden could be in free fall; Sanders has a “ceiling” to his support; Buttigieg has only won in predominantly white states; Klobuchar has limited money and virtually no national organization; and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is still untested on the campaign trail, despite his personal fortune.

In short, the memo argues all the candidates have flaws that make them all long-shots.

“So, the question becomes, who is not a long shot?” asks Michael Curry, former head of the NAACP in Massachusetts and a Warren supporter. “I don’t know if we know that now. So as long there’s ambiguity and uncertainty in the field, there’s room for Sen. Warren.”

The election calendar is about to speed up, and should soon provide a bit more clarity.

The Nevada caucuses are on Feb. 22, followed a week later by the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29, and then Super Tuesday (March 3), by which time 38% of total delegates to the national convention will have been awarded.

According to the Real Clear Politics average, Warren is running third in Nevada, and fourth in South Carolina — behind Biden, Sanders and billionaire Tom Steyer, who has been pouring money into the state.

“There’s a lot of good will and support for Sen. Warren here,” says Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a state representative in South Carolina, who is advising Steyer, but who says it is way too soon to write off Warren.

“I would advise Sen. Warren not to give up on her game based on two states that are not even close to being representative of the voting population of this country,” she adds.

Former Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank makes a similar point, arguing the race is still in its very early stages.

“It is a great flaw in our democratic process if New Hampshire and Iowa determine the race,” Frank says. “We are talking about thousands of votes in a country of hundreds of millions.”

On Tuesday night in New Hampshire, Warren told her supporters the road ahead would be “an uphill battle.” She understood then that finishing fourth there makes her battle a lot steeper.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 WBUR

Anthony Brooks has more than twenty five years of experience in public radio, working as a producer, editor, reporter, and most recently, as a fill-in host for NPR. For years, Brooks has worked as a Boston-based reporter for NPR, covering regional issues across New England, including politics, criminal justice, and urban affairs. He has also covered higher education for NPR, and during the 2000 presidential election he was one of NPR's lead political reporters, covering the campaign from the early primaries through the Supreme Court's Bush V. Gore ruling. His reports have been heard for many years on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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