DERRY, N.H. — The New Hampshire primary was days away, and Senator Elizabeth Warren was in trouble.
But surrounded by skeptical reporters after a town hall here, she batted away questions on what she needed to change to lift her middling polling numbers, and pointed instead to one aspect of her campaign.
“I’m not someone who shaped a campaign with a bunch of consultants,” Warren said defiantly. “I didn’t pick the proposals I have because they would be appealing to big-dollar donors.”
It might have seemed an odd time to stress her strict fund-raising rules and aversion to consultants instead of a more personal appeal to New Hampshire voters. But to Warren, the purity of her operation has long been central to a presidential bid that was supposed to get her elected while also leaving the Democratic Party better than she found it.
She has run her campaign in keeping with the anticorruption message that animates it, swearing off private fund-raisers and constantly reminding voters what she’s doing with her time instead: taking 100,000 pictures with supporters in her famous “selfie lines,” visiting 30 states, and calling to thank her small donors instead of begging wealthy people for money.
Yet in the days between her third-place showing in Iowa and her fourth-place finish in New Hampshire, the path Warren blazed seemed to take her right out of the limelight.
Instead, former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg — who happily attended high-roller fund-raisers and put consultants on the payroll — beat her for a second time, and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar finished a surprising third in Tuesday’s contest.
Warren’s disappointing early performance suggests many Democrats weren’t sure the year they were trying to defeat President Trump was the time to get money out of politics. And the voters who were sold on her anticorruption message had another progressive candidate, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who rocketed to political fame in 2016 by railing against millionaires and billionaires, to consider.
“Donald Trump will do anything to win, everybody knows that,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “So it’s only logical for some people to say, ‘We’ll worry about these ethical rules next time.’ ”
It can seem like Warren wants to change the Democratic Party and politics itself by running the perfect campaign, but some of the very rules she had in place to embody her message, like rejecting outside ad agencies, may have made it harder for her to defeat rivals who were not so shackled.
“The fight we’re in — the fight to save our democracy — is an uphill battle,” Warren said Tuesday night, speaking to her disappointed supporters.
Her campaign has vowed to stay in the fight, positioning her as a “unity candidate” and hoping that the large and chaotic field will help her overcome two losses in a row. She told the Associated Press Thursday that she had raised $6 million since Iowa, but the danger remains that her grass-roots funding could dry up if she doesn’t post wins soon.
In a call with her entire staff on Tuesday night, Warren said “we are not close” to knowing what will happen in the race.
“Even so, I recognize that doesn’t make this easy, I don’t kid myself,” she said. “I know that when the pundits and naysayers criticize us, I know it gets hard.”
“These are the moments we find out who we are,” she added. “We find out why we’re in this fight.”
There are many possible reasons why Warren’s campaign faltered in Iowa or New Hampshire, including the pummeling she received for her Medicare for All plan and Sanders’ post-heart attack comeback that allowed him to consolidate much of the left wing of the electorate. But the early results are discouraging for a campaign that drew admiration and envy from Warren’s rivals for its ability to put other candidates on the spot over their own tactics.
“We’re building a campaign that tries to model the politics we want to see,” her chief strategist, Joe Rospars, said in an interview on a politics podcast in September. That included producing all her ads in house, speaking dismissively of poll-tested candidates, and keeping expensive consultants out of the picture.
There have been moments over the past year when her anticorruption crusading appeared to perform its intended function of cleaning up Democratic politics — as well as boosting her in the field. Many of her rivals seemed flummoxed as she pressured them to defend their choice to attend high-dollar fund-raisers and subtly contrasted her extensive face time with voters to other candidates’ tendency to speed away in SUVs as soon as their town halls ended. Under pressure from Warren, Buttigieg allowed reporters into his fund-raisers, and he and Klobuchar released lists of their bundlers, who collect checks from other donors.
Memorably, Warren skewered Buttigieg in a December debate, mocking his time hobnobbing with the elites in a chandeliered “wine cave” and suggesting that only a candidate who is free from any hint of corruption can defeat Trump.
Brian Fallon, a former top aide to Hillary Clinton, said Warren’s attacks on Buttigieg’s reliance on wealthy donors may still hurt him over the long haul.
He added that Sanders appeared to take up Warren’s line of attack on Buttigieg in New Hampshire, frequently mentioning the “billionaires” who funded him.
Warren’s fresh and methodical approach to her campaign attracted zealous fans and volunteers who powered her organization in the early states. And her decision to stay for hours after each of her events to take photos — something she was only able to do because she did not spend those hours “sucking up” to rich people instead — also helped her stand out from her rivals.
But some voters interviewed in those selfie lines said a photograph with Warren had not necessarily secured their vote.
”I’m still shopping,” said Barbara Wells, a social worker who waited in a long selfie line in Marshalltown, Iowa, last month while wearing a “She Persisted” T-shirt and carrying one of Warren’s books.
Like many voters, Wells was primarily concerned with the hard-to-define concept of Warren’s “electability” against Trump, and a photo wasn’t going to change that.
By the final few weeks before the voting began, rival campaigns said they were less concerned about Warren’s anticorruption pitch.
An aide to one campaign who declined to speak on the record said he found a deeply personal story Warren tells only rarely, about her Aunt Bee rescuing her from a child care crisis in her 20s, to be far more threatening than her rhetoric around corruption and fund-raisers.
The subtlety of leading by example could have been lost on some voters.
“It’s always a mistake for a campaign to confuse process with message,” said Mark Longabaugh, a former adviser to Sanders and Andrew Yang, who thinks Warren’s core strength is her record as an economic reformer. “And when the process-y pieces of how you’re running a campaign become a message I think that rarely works”
Some political analysts and local experts also privately questioned why Warren did not have a better and more comprehensive ad campaign in Iowa, where Buttigieg — under the advice of the kinds of admakers and outside consultants Warren eschewed — had been flooding the airwaves with compelling biographical ads for weeks before the senator put up spots in a real way.
"The one thing that beats a TV ad, the one thing that beats a Facebook ad, the one thing that beats fake news is you,” Warren told an Iowa crowd in January. “It’s the face to face.”
Her campaign seemed to know that her carefully calibrated pitch, which centered on a bevy of dramatic policy changes around the core problem of corruption, was not sparking the magic lately that it had when she rose last summer.
But she and her aides never dramatically retooled her message or strategy, perhaps in part because the campaign itself is a strict reflection of Warren’s values, making change harder. They tried a series of new catch phrases, like “hope over fear” or “winning unwinnable fights,” as she looked for a way to rekindle voters’ interest, and rolled back the amount of time she spent in selfie lines.
Even her small shifts seemed aimed at changing the shape of Democratic politics more than inspiring voters. Warren began urging her supporters to “unite the party,” and offered herself up as a compromise for an electorate cleaved between moderates and progressives. The unity pitch kept her from drawing clear contrasts between herself and her rivals even as polls suggested she needed to do something dramatic to save her standing in New Hampshire.
“We’re going to have to bring our party together in order to be successful,” she said on Sunday in Concord. “And the way we do this is not by launching a bunch of attacks on each other and trying to tear each other down.”
That day, the crowd of about 750 was murmuring as Warren ticked off her plans in a middle school gymnasium after three introductions from her campaign cochairs, and some people began to do something unusual for a candidate who can usually keep her audience hushed and rapt: They left while she was still speaking.