VENICE, Calif. — As she headed out to canvass on Sunday afternoon with a “persiste” sticker — “persist” in Spanish — fixed to her sweatshirt, Kathy Finn was under no illusions that her candidate, Senator Elizabeth Warren, would win this state when voters go to the polls on Tuesday.
“She could come in second,” Finn, 55, said brightly. “She could start amassing enough delegates to potentially be in the running at the end.”
It was not exactly a stirring political rallying cry — or a very optimistic one — but Finn sounded a lot like Warren’s campaign aides, who are laboring to cut a path through a quickly shifting field even as they face the possibility that she will not come in first anywhere in the first month of voting.
They have publicly suggested their most viable path to the nomination is by prevailing in a contested Democratic convention, which would be a historical rarity if it happens.
Former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, who out-performed Warren in every early-voting state, and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar dropped out of the race in the past two days. But Warren and her allies have indicated they plan to stick it out, buoyed by the hope that a smaller field will be a boon to her — if it’s not already too late.
“The more the race consolidates, especially as candidates who are drawing most from her support base exit the race, the more it strengthens Elizabeth Warren’s hand,” said Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which supports Warren.
A crucial test of their strategy will come Tuesday, as voters head to the polls in 14 states. Warren’s advisers believe they can break the 15 percent threshold they need to amass delegates in several states — particularly California, Colorado, Massachusetts, and possibly Maine — and that the resulting delegate pile will be enough to keep her in the hunt in a fractured field.
“As the dust settles after March 3rd, the reality of this race will be clear: no candidate will likely have a path to the majority of delegates needed to win an outright claim to the Democratic nomination,” wrote Roger Lau, Warren’s campaign manager, in a memo to her supporters this week. He said Warren will emerge from Super Tuesday as one of only a few candidates “with a viable path to the Democratic nomination.”
Left unsaid is another point: Even though she seems unlikely to amass enough delegates to claim the nomination, the more she has, the more power she could wield at the Democratic convention.
"If a candidate can break threshold in multiple states and many districts so as to amass several hundred delegates, and if other leading candidates can't get a majority of delegates on their own, the candidate with several hundred delegates may have a potentially pivotal position in the nominating process,” said Jeff Berman, a delegate strategist for President Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Depending on how former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg fares on Tuesday, the field could come to resemble what Lau predicted several weeks ago: a three-way contest between Warren, former vice president Joe Biden, and the current front-runner, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
“What a race looks like when things are narrowed down is very different,” said Neera Tanden, president of the Democratic think tank the Center for American Progress. “People could wake up and see a three-person race or a four-person race and Elizabeth Warren is the only woman in that race, and decide that they are going in a different direction.”
One tangible benefit for Warren of Klobuchar’s departure is that groups supporting female politicians now apparently feel like they can step off the sidelines. On Monday, Emily’s List and the National Organization for Women’s PAC endorsed Warren.
So far, Warren has not faced the same level of pressure to drop out that buffeted Buttigieg and Klobuchar from moderates worried that Sanders could run away with the nomination if their wing of the party did not consolidate around a single candidate.
Throughout the race, Warren has been squeezed between the liberal and moderate wings of the party, a dynamic that halted the growth of her support but could now be somewhat liberating, because neither side of the Biden-Sanders split appears to believe she takes too many of their voters.
Some Biden backers are openly encouraging her to stay in the race, in the hopes that she will hurt Sanders.
“Whatever factor she is, it’s an advantage to the vice president,” said former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, who has endorsed Biden. “I would want her to stay in, but I don’t think it’s going to make or break .”
Key Sanders supporters, meanwhile, are publicly downplaying her impact on the race.
“It doesn’t hurt Bernie one way or another,” said Jim Zogby, of the Sanders-aligned group Our Revolution. “She seems like she’s enjoying herself, which is always a good thing for a candidate.”
One sign of urgency among progressives, however, came from the Vermont-based group Democracy for America, which tried to draft Warren to run for president in 2016 but endorsed Sanders Monday after staying neutral since the beginning of the campaign.
“I think that Elizabeth Warren is smart and she’s a very effective progressive senator and I think that she will absolutely do the right thing when it comes the right time,” Charles Chamberlain, the group’s executive director, said.
The progressive groups backing Warren insist that her presence in the race is still good for their cause, because they believe she is drawing support from voters who might otherwise back Biden.
“Having two progressive candidates in the race who are both winning progressive delegates could be really good for our movement,” said Joe Dinkin, of the Working Families Party.