MANCHESTER, N.H. — They are giants of Democratic politics. They took turns as front-runners in the race to be their party’s standard bearer in a pivotal election year.
But as the roller coaster that is the 2020 primary careened through New Hampshire on Tuesday night, it left Senator Elizabeth Warren and former vice president Joe Biden promising to find a way to win the Democratic nomination although they haven’t come close to notching a victory in the first two contests.
Warren finished fourth and Biden fifth, both far behind the top three candidates with apparently only single-digit vote totals.
“Our best chance for this party and this nation is with a candidate that can do the work,” Warren said, as she took the stage in a drafty tennis arena after only a fraction of the night’s results had trickled in.
“Our campaign is built for the long haul,” she said, “and we’re just getting started.”
One thousand miles away, in South Carolina, Biden — who had already cut his losses in New Hampshire — told his supporters he would fight on, too.
“We just heard from the first two of 50 states, two of them. Not all the nation, not half the nation, not a quarter measure, not 10 percent. Two,” he said, in a speech live-streamed back to his New Hampshire election night party.
Warren and Biden have been bruised by the unconventional nature of the 2020 primary, a contest that has elevated the little known newcomer Pete Buttigieg, rewarded Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism, and even given Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who until just a week ago seemed destined to be an also-ran, a turn in the spotlight.
Now, the best hope for Warren, who had about 9 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, and Biden, who finished with about 8 percent, is that the chaos of a race that humbled them will also give them time to turn things around.
“We might be headed for one of those long primary fights that last for months,” Warren said, speaking in front of a crowd that interrupted her to chant her name and thank her for staying in the race. “The question for us Democrats is whether it will be a long bitter rehash of the same old divides in our party, or whether we can find another way.”
Hours before the polls closed, her campaign manager issued a memo casting her leading rivals as deeply flawed and insisting she can sustain early-state losses and emerge victorious in a “volatile and unpredictable” primary race.
“After New Hampshire tonight, 98% of pledged delegates will still be up for grabs,” wrote Roger Lau. "And as the race consolidates after Super Tuesday, we expect the results to show that Elizabeth Warren is the consensus choice of the widest coalition of Democrats in every corner of the country.”
But the memo underscored the precarious position in which Warren now finds herself, as she turns to a drawn-out, Byzantine battle for delegates.
Some of Warren’s allies remained bullish on Tuesday night, pointing out that she had beaten Biden for the second contest in row. Hundreds of Warren’s supporters and staffers gathered on the tennis court that had been converted into an event space, its green floor several shades darker than her campaign’s signature mint green hue, which was painted on some of her supporters’ nails.
Some of Warren’s staffers glued themselves to two televisions in the corner of the space showing the evening’s results and sobbed. Others simply stood mystified. How could a candidate who had campaigned here for a year, and once led this state’s polls, be trailing Amy Klobuchar by more than 10 points?
“I don’t know,” said Kathleen Hutchins, a Londonderry Democrat who worked in sales and had hosted dozens of Warren volunteers in her home. “There’s so many candidates, everybody has their spikes.”
Buoyed by Warren’s determined speech — which she followed up by getting right back into her ubiquitous selfie lines, even though her smile was a bit tighter than usual — many of her supporters vowed to keep donating and organizing on her behalf.
“It hurts, but it doesn’t,” said state Representative Suzanne Vail of Nashua. “Because I know she’s going to go the distance."
Biden seemed to know early he’d have a bad night in New Hampshire. Before the polls closed, he flew to South Carolina, a state his campaign has described as a firewall because of his strong support among Black voters.
But Biden might have trouble there as well. Billionaire Tom Steyer appears to be eroding Biden’s polling lead with Black voters in the state and another billionaire, Michael Bloomberg, has said he plans to be competitive in South Carolina and in two states, Nevada and Texas, with large Latino populations.
By the end of the week, Biden plans to be in Nevada, a state where Sanders has been making inroads. But Biden arrives with no momentum and faces the prospect his poor performances in Iowa and New Hampshire will cause his fund-raising to dry up as well.
“We’re going into an especially important phase because up till now, we haven’t heard from the most committed constituency in the Democratic Party, the African American community and the fastest-growing segment of society, the Latino community,” Biden said in Columbia. “So when we hear all these pundits and experts and the cable TV talkers talking about the race, I tell them, it ain’t over man, we’re just getting started.”
In the ballroom at the Radisson Hotel in Nashua, some 100 people mingled to classic rock around cocktail tables and large, portable screens at a Biden party that Biden didn’t attend.
"There's still plenty of race to go," said David Pecoraro, 60, who spent most of Monday and Tuesday holding Biden signs outside of polling stations in Manchester. The retired teacher from Queens said he wasn't upset Biden had skipped his own party because he got to meet the former vice president when he brought his volunteers coffee. "He was there delivering cups of Joe because he is a regular Joe."
Even as the Election night outlook remained poor for Biden, former New Hampshire governor John Lynch took the stage and called him the candidate with the best chances of beating Trump and someone “who could restore trust, integrity and honesty to the Oval Office.”
Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.