MANCHESTER, N.H. — It was 24 hours before the biggest contest of her political life. Senator Elizabeth Warren didn’t want to talk about it that way.
She was making the media rounds ahead of the New Hampshire primary when she dialed into a progressive SiriusXM radio show, Signal Boost. A voter asked her a straightforward enough question: Who did she see as her biggest 2020 competitor — and why was she better than them?
Ms. Warren demurred.
“I know there’s only going to be one winner,” Ms. Warren said. “I’m not — I’m not turning away from that. But I am turning away from the idea of seeing each other as if I win, you lose. You know, if you win, I lose.”
The next day, they won. She lost.
How Ms. Warren ended up as a fourth-place finisher in New Hampshire now at risk of receding from the national political conversation — her primary-night speech was not carried live by any of the major cable networks — is the story of a candidate who spent the past crucial week unbending to the realities of a competitive primary happening around her.
She evinced little sense of urgency after a third-place showing in Iowa that was a disappointment even as it left her a contender. She resisted calls by allies to confront her opponents and their weaknesses head on. She spoke relatively little at a turning-point debate on Friday after she had dominated airtime at such gatherings last year.
When she did speak — be it onstage, to voters or to reporters — she mostly stuck to her familiar and comfortable script of “big, structural change” that powered her rise but has not prevented her subsequent fall. Some people around Ms. Warren were talking about being at peace with how the campaign had been run.
Then, hours before the polls closed, her campaign released a nearly 2,000-word memo on her path ahead, talking delegation accumulation and detailing her rivals’ flaws: Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was at risk of collapsing, Senator Bernie Sanders had a “ceiling” and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who had won the most delegates in Iowa, was in for a struggle as people in more diverse states headed to the polls.
“The road to the Democratic nomination is not paved with statewide winner-take-all victories,” the memo stated.
By the end of the evening, Mr. Sanders had won in New Hampshire, with Mr. Buttigieg a close second and Senator Amy Klobuchar in third. Mr. Biden, fifth here, has staked his campaign on the support of black voters in South Carolina, where he flew before the race was called Tuesday.
Ms. Warren’s campaign cannot say what state it will win next.
“My job,” she said on Monday, “is to persist.”
Persisting and winning, needless to say, are very different things.
The state of the Democratic race remains fluid. Mr. Sanders and Mr. Buttigieg outpaced the fractured field with historically low totals in Iowa and New Hampshire, and Mr. Biden’s campaign is on the ropes. Ms. Warren has more delegates than Ms. Klobuchar or Mr. Biden, she polls higher among nonwhite voters than some rivals, and she maintains an enthusiastic base of supporters and high-profile surrogates.
On Wednesday, television stations in South Carolina began reporting cuts to planned advertisements, a possible sign of cash flow difficulties, even as the campaign said it was placing ads in Maine and Nevada. Allies have started to rationalize Tuesday’s defeat as something positive: That losing in stunning fashion is better than a marginal loss, because it will force campaign leadership to make the strategic shake-ups they have long resisted.
“I don’t exactly get the game plan other than to try and outlast a number of people and emerge an acceptable choice to progressives and moderates at the same time,” said David Axelrod, a former top strategist for President Barack Obama. “It’s a narrow, narrow path they’re trying to navigate here. And they’re in a race against time and they’re in a race for money and at some point you have to emerge.”
Inside Ms. Warren’s operation, the plan has been to position herself as the “unity” candidate, the politician best equipped to pull together the party’s various factions, especially supporters of Mr. Sanders who, if he is not the nominee, may be particularly hard to bring into the party fold. The Warren campaign is readying for a war of attrition, banking on her high favorability ratings, many small donors, and 1,000-strong staff spread across 30 states, including those that vote on Super Tuesday, to survive.
From the start, Ms. Warren had bet big and early on putting grass-roots organizers in the community. But the first two results showed a limited dividend. In the end, she was overtaken in New Hampshire by Ms. Klobuchar, who chartered a plane of 20 aides from Iowa to double her staff here just for the final week.
On Tuesday, her campaign manager’s memo pitched her as the “consensus choice.” But by night’s end she sat behind an array of candidates in various political lanes: Mr. Sanders among progressives, Mr. Buttigieg among those pitching unity, and Ms. Klobuchar among those looking to elect a woman.
If Mr. Biden has demonstrated the challenges of running as the “electable” candidate who loses, Ms. Warren is now facing the task of selling herself as a “consensus” pick after she received less than 10 percent of the vote in New Hampshire.
Her performance in the first contests has ignited new scrutiny of the close-knit team of advisers who were almost universally heralded as helming the primary’s most well-run campaign as recently as last summer. After Iowa, Ms. Warren’s staff made virtually no adjustments in New Hampshire to her messaging, other than a small addition to her stump speech about her history of winning “unwinnable fights,” a nod to the difficult political moment she now faces.
“I’m surprised that she didn’t choose to engage in New Hampshire,” said Jennifer Palmieri, a former communications director for Hillary Clinton, whose book “Dear Madam President” Ms. Warren has read as she makes her own pioneering run for the White House. “She may either be on a trajectory where she only cares about the ideas or has some other plan.”
Among a campaign staff headquartered in Boston, some frustration is beginning to set in. Differences are largely not generational or ideological, but exist among a cadre of midlevel and state staff who feel key decisions are kept to a small inner circle.
At her watch party in Manchester Tuesday night, the mood among those gathered turned from joyous to grim. Televisions showing election results were cut off. News traveled, person to person, that Ms. Warren was likely to finish without delegates. Supporters showed a sense of defiance, with some blaming media bias.
A frustrated John Tehan, 61, who traveled to the party from Ms. Warren’s home state, Massachusetts, said her finish was “disappointing.” He wished Ms. Warren had fought to speak more in the recent debate.
“I don’t know if it was just the debate — but that didn’t help,” Mr. Tehan said.
Ms. Warren addressed the crowd almost immediately after polls closed and her standing became clear. She spoke of the respect she had for Mr. Sanders and Mr. Buttigieg, and sought to reassure supporters that she was up for what she saw as a primary fight ahead, pointedly congratulating “Amy Klobuchar for showing just how wrong the pundits can be when they count a woman out.”
Then she went on to criticize the tone that the rest of the field had taken — the direct attacks in a weekend of sparring when she remained above the fray.
“The fight between factions in our party has taken a sharp turn in recent weeks, with ads mocking other candidates and with supporters of some candidates shouting curses about other Democratic candidates,” she said. “These harsh tactics might work if you are willing to burn down the rest of the party in order to be the last man standing.”
From the start, Ms. Warren had centered her candidacy on her ideas, and last week she told Time magazine she would even “lead the parade” for her rivals if they were elected in her stead and adopted her myriad plans.
She sought to answer the ever-elusive “electability” question through a blistering pace of policy proposals, including her signature wealth tax aimed at gaining revenue by increasing taxes on the country’s richest individuals and corporations; a proposal to break up big technology companies; and a plan that would cancel most student debt. Ms. Warren also backed progressive ideas such as the Green New Deal to combat climate change, and a “Medicare for all” health care system.
She surged ahead in Iowa — leading in a November poll from The New York Times and Siena College.
It would not last. In the final months of 2019, moderate rivals began to target her relentlessly, particularly regarding her support for Medicare for all. Mr. Buttigieg called her “extremely evasive.” At a Democratic primary debate in October, even candidates struggling to gain traction found Ms. Warren a welcome target.
Ahead of Iowa, with internal data showing about half her support came from 2016 supporters of Mr. Sanders and half from supporters of Mrs. Clinton, the Warren campaign chose to present her as a unifying figure.
In New Hampshire, one 30-second ad, entitled “Courage to Unite,” featured testimonials from a former Republican, a Clinton supporter and a Sanders backer. The ex-Sanders supporter was Ron Abramson, who was bracing for defeat in the hours before the polls closed Tuesday.
“There’s this tension between being nimble and being reactive,” he said of Ms. Warren. “She’s not going to scream from the rooftops, and sometimes it makes it hard to get attention if you don’t do something dramatic.”
He had hoped to see more — yet he was unsure if it would have worked anyway.
“I don’t think her skills and her operation were as well-suited to the moment, in terms of raw strategic calculation, as someone else,” Mr. Abramson said. “I also think if she had tried to do it, it would have fallen flat.”