Elizabeth Warren began her presidential campaign with a blast of economic populism and calls for “big, structural change.” After disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, that message still looks viable -- but so far, voters prefer that Bernie Sanders, not Warren, carry it forward.

Sanders’ victory in New Hampshire on Tuesday, coupled with his emergence as national front-runner in a pair of new polls, leaves Warren’s campaign struggling for direction and attention. Her initial strategy of building a national infrastructure with grassroots donors and generating momentum with early wins in Iowa and New Hampshire has been replaced by an urgent new one: Survive long enough for voters to generate doubts about Sanders and Pete Buttigieg and give her another look.

Warren hails from neighboring Massachusetts and is expected to perform well in New Hampshire, and her supporters insist her fourth-place finish doesn’t doom her.

“It doesn’t mean the game is over,” says Kathy Sullivan, former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party who endorsed Warren. “It means that in order to keep going and win you need to make some changes.”

Yet Warren has stubbornly resisted altering her style and approach, even after some advisers urged her to step up her New Hampshire voter outreach following the impeachment trial that pulled her away from the campaign trail. Suggestions included a statewide bus tour and celebrity surrogates to revive the buzz around her candidacy and build momentum. The Warren campaign wasn’t interested.

“New Hampshire was her backyard state, where she should have been able to capitalize on her years of work in the state and turn that into a launchpad for the rest of the primaries,” said Chris Galdieri, a professor of politics at Saint Anselm College.

On Tuesday, aiming to halt the impression that their candidate is fading, Warren’s campaign sent a memo to supporters that framed the race as still wide open. “No candidate has come close yet to receiving majority support among the Democratic primary electorate, and there is no candidate that has yet shown the ability to consolidate support,” wrote campaign manager, Roger Lau. “Warren is poised to finish in the top two in over half of Super Tuesday states (eight of 14), in the top three in all of them.”

As the race shifts to Nevada and South Carolina, Warren’s prospects don’t appear likely to improve anytime soon. Democratic strategists and party officials say three factors have contributed to her under-performance.

First, Warren’s strategy was built on the assumption that she could lure liberal voters away from Sanders, while also carrying mainstream Democrats who’d never support a democratic socialist. That strategy worked -- briefly. An Oct. 14 Quinnipiac University poll, taken shortly after Sanders suffered a heart attack, found that Warren was the national front-runner. She was the overwhelming choice of voters who described themselves as “very liberal,” more than tripling Sanders’s share (50% to 14%), while also carrying white-collar professionals. She beat Sanders 38% to 6% among white voters with a college degree.

But Warren couldn’t maintain her lead with either group.

To establish credibility with the left, she embraced Sanders’ Medicare for All plan and remained a vocal supporter long after other presidential hopefuls backed away.

As voters learned what her vast restructuring of the U.S. health care system entailed — eliminating private health insurance, for instance — many of the professional-class Democrats who made up the core of her support abandoned her. A Feb. 10 Quinnipiac poll found that Sanders has caught up to her with white college-educated voters: each candidate now draws 17% support. Many Democratic strategists point to Warren’s embrace of Medicare for All as the precipitator of her decline.

“The only reason she signed onto it at the beginning was fear of losing out to Sanders on the left,” says Barney Frank, the liberal former Massachusetts congressman who has advised Warren while staying neutral in the race. “It was neither good policy nor good politics.”

At the same time, Warren’s late concession to the political damage she was incurring — rolling out a three-year transition plan to Medicare that delayed its most disruptive elements — drew a sharp backlash from left-wing voters, who also abandoned her in droves. The same Quinnipiac poll found a dramatic shift of “very liberal” voters, who now support Sanders over Warren by 44% to 27%.

Advertising Decision

A second reason for Warren’s fall, strategists say, was her campaign’s decision to limit her paid television ads during the critical period last fall when she was under attack for her Medicare for All support — a time when challengers like Buttigieg were flooding the airwaves. “It was clear she was being pulled off message in having to explain her position, yet we saw nothing but darkness from her in terms of TV,” says Jeff Link, a veteran Iowa strategist unaffiliated with any campaign. “During the same period, Pete was running ads laying out his ‘unity’ message without anyone else on the air attacking him. That was a huge turning point in the race.”

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