NASHUA, N.H. ― Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was wrapping up a town hall here in New Hampshire’s second-largest city when a voter asked how she planned to defeat Donald Trump and win the 2020 presidential election.
“The way I’m going to win is I’m going to unite our party, because we have to have a united party,” Warren said Tuesday, one week before the second contest of the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. “We can’t have a repeat of 2016.”
It’s a point the Warren campaign has been hammering over the past month, downplaying her history of challenging other Democrats and arguing she’s uniquely qualified to bridge the party’s ideological, age, gender and racial divides. Some allies have gone further and argued it positions her well for a potential contested convention.
But as Warren stumbles out of a third-place finish in Iowa and seeks the game-changing result in New Hampshire that she failed to get in the Midwest, her pitch has a problem: Many of the voters she needs to win over aren’t Democrats at all. Public polling here has shown Warren running strong with registered Democrats but performing poorly with the independents who plan to cast ballots in the Democratic race and often play a crucial role in Granite State politics.
A Monmouth University poll of likely New Hampshire primary voters released Thursday illustrates her problem. Warren earns 13% of the vote overall, good for fourth place, behind Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 24%, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s 20% and former Vice President Joe Biden’s 17%. But Warren earns the support of 21% of registered Democrats, trailing only Sanders. Her standing is hurt because just 5% of independents plan to back her. (Other polls in New Hampshire, including ones by Marist College, WBUR and Suffolk University, find similar gaps.)
Patrick Murray, the Monmouth pollster who conducted the survey, noted the lack of a competitive Republican primary and said it meant more moderate and even some conservative voters would cast ballots on the Democratic side, causing problems for a progressive like Warren, who supports a wealth tax, mass student debt forgiveness and the decriminalization of border crossings.
“Warren’s support is coming from traditionally liberal Democratic women,” Murray said. “When you only have one primary, you’re going to get more independent voters who are further from the ideological extreme of the party. In this case, you’re getting more voters from the center, or either more towards the right.”
But ideology can’t explain all of Warren’s struggles with independents. Sanders, who is to her left, actually does better with independents than with registered Democrats in the Monmouth survey. That’s partially because Sanders, who has long refused to officially join the Democratic Party, is seen as a less partisan figure. Warren, who rocketed to liberal fame in part because of her willingness to take on other Democrats, has downplayed her past criticisms in an attempt to become a consensus, unifying figure.
“They’re very much antiestablishment,” Murray said of the independent voters who are backing Sanders. “If she had done that, she might’ve been able to dig into some of Bernie’s independents.”
The Warren campaign declined to comment on the record for this story.
“We Need To Pull This Party Together”
Since the start of January, Warren has sought to capitalize on escalating intra-party tensions caused by Sanders’s rise in the polls by offering herself as a way to satiate both of the party’s ideological wings while remaining acceptable to Black and Latino voters. (This is intended to separate her from Buttigieg, who has also positioned himself as the middle ground but struggles with voters of color.)
Her allies routinely cite polling showing a wide swath of Democratic voters are still considering backing her and that she is the nominee who would disappoint the smallest portion of Democrat voters.
At the Nashua event, unifying the party seemed to be her major message. Aides handed out “Unite the party” signs to attendees, and Warren took time to note she had won support from elected officials and organizers who had previously backed candidates who have dropped out of the contest.
“We now have a campaign that, sure, it’s got a lot of Elizabeth Warren originals,” she told a crowd Wednesday in Nashua, “but it’s also got a lot of [Sen. Kamala Harris] folks in it. It’s got a lot of [former Housing Secretary Julián Castro] folks in it. It’s got a lot of [former Rep. Beto O’Rourke] folks in it. It’s got a lot of [Sen. Cory Booker] folks in it, because they all had good ideas, and they all care about our country.”
The Warren campaign is driving the point home with television ads featuring people who supported Hillary Clinton, Sanders and Trump in 2016 and are now backing Warren. (The campaign aired a similar spot in Iowa.)
At events in Nashua and in Derry on Thursday, it seemed to be working. “I was honestly leaning toward Bernie, but today clinched it for Warren,” said Tara Picciano, a registered Democrat and stay-at-home mom from nearby Wyndham. “I want the fighter. I want somebody who’s going to unite the party.”
Asked if she worried that Sanders couldn’t bring the party together, Picciano was diplomatic: “What I worry about is the soundbite of bully-ism,” she said. “I feel like, unfortunately, that’s where Bernie is right now.”
But not everyone was sold or even agreed that party unity was a major problem.
Lorrie Belinsky, a retired school administrator and independent, said she was still considering Warren, Buttigieg and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.). “I don’t know. That’s one thing I maybe worry about. I’m not sure at this point,” she said when asked if Warren could unite anti-Trump forces.
And state Rep. Erika Connors, who said she was “pretty sure” she planned to endorse Warren after vacillating between her and Buttigieg, downplayed party unity as an issue.
“I don’t really see the party as divided as people are making it out to be. I think people are either going to vote for Donald Trump, or they’re going to vote for the alternative, whoever it is,” she said.
“She Was There To Hold Me Accountable As A Democrat”
A day earlier, Castro ― the only defeated rival of Warren’s to directly endorse her so far ― was in downtown Nashua for a meet-and-greet at Warren’s office here.
During a brief speech to the gathered supporters, Castro discussed the first time he met Warren. As a member of a Senate committee with oversight of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Warren invited Castro to lunch in the Senate dining room. What Castro thought would be a casual get-to-know-you visit quickly turned serious and wonky.
“She wanted to know what I was going to do to hold Wall Street accountable as people were losing their mortgages, she wanted to know how we are going to keep people in their homes,” Castro said. “She was there to hold me accountable, from a friendly administration, because it wasn’t the party or the position that mattered most to her, it was the people that she was supposed to be there representing.”
Castro’s anecdote stood out. Though it fits into a larger pattern of Warren holding the feet of her fellow Democrats to the fire, it broke against the Warren campaign’s tendency to downplay that pattern.
During her rise to political fame during the Great Recession, Warren was a vociferous critic of how the Obama administration’s Treasury Department responded to the financial and housing crises. In the Senate, she continued to aggravate her Democratic colleagues by lambasting them for their support of laws progressives pointed to as giveaways to the banking and pharmaceutical industries.
Warren has always balanced her criticisms of other Democrats with a team player attitude, hosting fundraisers for Senate candidates and using her robust email list to help other Democrats raise money. But throughout the 2020 campaign, Warren has often declined to engage in critiques of other Democrats, and her campaign has positioned her as the pragmatic progressive in contrast to Sanders’s willingness to declare war on the establishment.
She has repeatedly declined to repeat her recession-era critiques of the Obama administration and has largely refrained from relitigating the fight that brought her into politics: her battles with Biden over his push for bankruptcy legislation she said would sell out consumers. In general, with the exception of her now-famous “wine cave” attack on Buttigieg, Warren has avoided going on the attack against the other candidates.
Warren’s campaign is now airing an ad in both New Hampshire and South Carolina featuring her work during the recession, but it doesn’t show her sharply questioning Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner or Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Mary Jo White, two Obama officials Warren regularly scorned. It shows President Barack Obama lavishing praise on her.
Castro, in an interview after his speech, punted when asked if Warren needed to place more emphasis on her past intra-party clashes: “I’ll leave the political analysis to the campaign.”
The event also had a distinctly left-wing feel that could contribute to the skepticism some independents feel toward Warren: As Jordan Thompson, a former Harris organizer who later endorsed Castro and was now backing Warren, talked about how “any movement for big structural change must be diverse and intersectional,” other young people snapped their figures in approval.
In an interview after the event, Thompson praised Warren: “She understands intersectionality. For too long, marginalized people have been placed on the back burner.” But he also said he was under “no illusion” about how much demand voters in New Hampshire, the third-whitest state in the union, might have for racial justice.
“I would give some of those voters a little bit more credit,” he said. “But maybe that’s just me being optimistic.”
Where Warren Goes From Here
Warren arrived in the Granite State in a steady position after a third-place finish in Iowa, receiving neither the boost granted to Sanders and Buttigieg nor the preemptive postmortems delivered to Biden. Polling in New Hampshire generally places her fourth, but she remains in third in national polling and in position to pick up a significant share of delegates on Super Tuesday on March 3.
“We’re in the top three in Iowa, and now we’ve landed in New Hampshire, and now we’re out there fighting for everyone in New Hampshire, and then after that we have 55 more states and territories,” Warren said during a short meeting with reporters Tuesday, indicating that there’s little chance she would alter her campaign’s long-game-focused, organizing-heavy strategy.
But it’s unclear how the Warren team plans to jumpstart her campaign into actually winning the nomination, particularly as Sanders continues to raise gargantuan sums ― his campaign announced Thursday morning he raised more than $25 million in January ― and seemingly consolidates his hold on the left-leaning voters they once battled over.
If Warren can’t get a boost in New Hampshire, she’ll need to look to Nevada for a boost. But there are signs of trouble there: She’s cut more than $300,000 from her television ad buys in the state, Advertising Analytics reported. And on Thursday, Politico reported that six women of color left Warren’s Nevada staff in recent months, frustrated by a campaign culture they felt didn’t value their input. At the Derry event, Warren issued an apology.
“I believe these women, completely and without reservation. And I apologize that they have had a bad experience on this campaign,” she told reporters. “I take personal responsibility for this. And I’m working with my team to address these concerns.”
But as the field remains fractured ― not a single candidate dropped out after Monday night’s caucuses in Iowa ― and the entrance of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg starting on Super Tuesday is set to throw the race into further chaos, some Warren allies have begun suggesting the candidate who consistently emphasizes her ability to unify the party could do just that from a contested Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee in July.
“A brokered convention has previously been more of a plot device than an active political reality, but I think it’s an extremely live possibility in 2020,” said Jeff Hauser, a Democratic strategist who supports Warren. “In the context of a president who scares a party so much, and with the memory of 2016 divisions so sharp, I think the candidate who is disliked by the fewest members of the party is going to make a compelling choice.”
Amanda Terkel contributed reporting from Derry, New Hampshire.