Elizabeth Warren started early. She kept at it for months. And, three contests later, she has very little to show for the vast grassroots network that, for a time, was the envy of the field.
After bragging just one month ago that the Massachusetts senator had “sparked grassroots enthusiasm across the country,” Warren’s campaign is approaching South Carolina and Super Tuesday with a bleak electoral reality: that the extensive and expensive operation she had worked to build for over a year has little to no return on investment.
“Oh God it’s so sad,” said Sean Bagniewski, the chair of the Polk County Democrats in Des Moines, who spoke favorably about Warren and her team. “There was a point this fall when all of us thought she basically had it in the bag.”
The reasons behind the disconnect, according to interviews with nearly a dozen Democratic operatives and activists familiar with early states, were difficult to overcome no matter how strong the ground game was. The candidate’s consistency and national messaging strategy came into question. And Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) ability to outflank her campaign from the left of the party, while dramatically out fundraising her, helped him capture the oxygen she desperately needed. A failure to successfully highlight her differences from Sanders earlier on only made things worse.
While most Democrats interviewed seemed to have a theory of what went wrong, others remained utterly perplexed: With so much presence in states where retail politics rules, what’s with third and fourth place?
“I still believe she had the strongest organization, staff, everything,” Jeff Link, a long-time political strategist in Iowa, said. “She built an impressive team here and there’s no taking that away.”
The buzz about Warren’s ground game started before most of her rivals, and was routinely mentioned whenever her campaign appeared to surge. The senator “has built one of the most robust operations in,” Iowa, Bloomberg reporters wrote in July. “Elizabeth Warren's slow, steady ground game helped propel rise in latest Iowa Poll” a Des Moines Register headline read in September. Earlier that same month, the New York Times wrote from New Hampshire that Warren’s “ground game is often regarded as the most extensive here.” A report from Time just ahead of the caucuses cited 150 staffers on the ground and 26 field offices.
By late January, Warren’s campaign wasn’t shy about the acclaim.
“Since last spring, we’ve had a robust staff footprint in the four earliest voting states, including what even rival campaigns acknowledge is the best organization on the ground,” the campaign said in a memo released on Jan. 24 titled, “Our Roadmap To Win.”
But with all that clout heading into the Feb. 3 caucus, Warren flopped. Assessing the lackluster performance, multiple Democratic operatives and activists who spoke to The Daily Beast said an advanced ground game is not enough to stop problems popping up elsewhere.
“What you’re doing by building a strong ground game is you’re buying an insurance policy in case it’s super close,” Link said about the idea that having an immense ground game may not be enough to secure a win. “If it’s not close, it doesn’t matter,” he said.
Ultimately, it wasn’t close for Warren, who came in a whopping eight points behind her top rivals, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sanders in the Hawkeye State. Worse, she came three points behind the candidate whose campaign had been lowering expectations, both privately and publicly, there for months. Finishing at 18 percent, Warren was firmly behind Buttigieg and Sanders, each at 26 percent, and just ahead of former Vice President Joe Biden, who earned 15.8 percent.
“They thought they were going to do better than they did,” Bagniewski said. “They were cautiously optimistic.”
Some Democrats pointed to a perfect storm of broadly negative factors. There was the Senate impeachment trial. And the Des Moines Register-poll-that-wasn’t. And the technological meltdown. And, most consequentially, there was Sanders.
Others, meanwhile, offered post-mortems more specific to Warren’s own perils, with several pointing to a lack of cohesive messaging throughout the primary. With Sanders staking an early claim to the progressive mantle, Warren teetered between adopting more liberal positions like swearing off high-ticket fundraisers, and more moderate ones, like allowing for the choice of a public option in her Medicare for All plan.
And unlike Buttigieg, who crisscrossed the state during President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, the Massachusetts senator was out of pocket—a dynamic that stretched beyond her physical absence. While Sanders and Buttigieg both flooded the airwaves, Warren was silent for months.
“I could not go to any news outlet without seeing a Pete digital ad,” Peter Leo, the Carroll County chairman who was Warren’s precinct captain in his rural area. “[Warren] stayed out of that conversation before finally getting up in the air,” he added. “When your field teams can basically fight to a draw, that traditional ad spending starts to make a difference again.”
While Leo praised Warren’s operation as diligent and highly competent, he acknowledged the limitations. In one instance, as precinct captain, he was given a list of 16 voters who field staff and organizers had been assured through a written commitment would caucus for Warren. When caucus day came around, only four out of the 16 actually showed up.
“We had a 75 percent flake rate,” Leo said. “A good field plan can add on the margins but it can’t do it for you all by itself. You’ve got to be in the conversation, you’ve got to be on peoples’ minds.”
A fourth Iowa Democratic who supported Warren still wasn’t sure how to pinpoint what went wrong.
“My class of people, the political operative types, most of us caucused for her,” the state-based Democrat said. “Ground game in general is always going to be a marginal thing. Field will get you 2 or 3 percent.”
After Iowa however, even Warren’s own campaign manager didn’t seem to fully acknowledge the limits of the field effort. “We've built an organization to match what we expect to be a drawn-out contest to accumulate delegates everywhere,” Roger Lau wrote in a memo under a section titled, “What we learned from Iowa.”
The trend tracked in New Hampshire. For the first eight months of last year, Warren had out-campaigned neighbor Sanders, as liberal voters browsing for a fresher option took interest in the 70-year-old Democrat. By the fall of 2019, Warren supporters had plenty of reasons to be hopeful. She was in the state just four years ago to campaign for Hillary Clinton, who narrowly beat Trump to Democrats’ relief. And on the few occasion state party officials rallied candidate to cattle calls before the 2020 primary, Warren’s campaign apparatus turned out in full force to support her.
But it wouldn’t last.
“I'm baffled by the result in New Hampshire," said Sarah Daniels-Campbell, another Warren endorser who leads the state’s Grafton County Democrats.
"I think if I had that answer I'd be running for president," said Kevin Cavanaugh, a New Hampshire state senator supportive of Warren’s bid.
After coming in third place in Iowa, the benefit of just dropping by to see neighbors, as the senator liked to say on the stump, was shaping up to be less than expected. Having come in with every conceivable advantage—voters already knew her and her focus last year was meant to make that bond even tighter—polls showed her losing steam for months. Following an unremarkable debate performance in Manchester just days before the primary, she lost ground to an entirely different candidate: Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who edged out Warren for the third place finish despite having a skeletal field operation and next to no name recognition locally.
“I know there’s only going to be one winner,” Warren said just before primary day. “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 message was part of the unity pitch she had been test-running in the days before voting started: that she is best poised to unite the country against Trump in November. But it was inconsistent with other aspects of her campaign. As she continued to slip in polls and momentum, she ramped up attacks on other candidates, including Sanders, who ultimately won the primary for the second time with a massive war chest.
Having the most money doesn't guarantee a win, nor does having the best ground game, said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist in Massachusetts, and all the pieces have to come together. The piece that was missing for Warren in Iowa and New Hampshire was the strategy, she said.
“I think the strategy that she needed was one where she made stronger contrasts between herself and Sanders,” Marsh said.
One former staffer for a rival New Hampshire campaign described Warren's effort as doing much of “the technical stuff right,” in the same way that Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) had in his own campaign. But like in Iowa, the staffer questioned Warren's consistency, something that Sanders’ fans point to as being a major factor in their support for the now frontrunner.
That difference proved key as Warren tried to peel away some of Sanders’ New Hampshire base. “She's down to compromise because that's what being a smart politician is,” the 2020 veteran said. “Bernie's not down to compromise. But that base is not down to compromise either.”
A week later, Nevada proved to be more of the same. Heading into the Silver State, Federal Election Commission records showed in late January the campaign took out a $3 million line of credit, accessed $400,000 of it but never ended up using it. And, more strongly than in the first two states, Sanders was fully surging.
Still, for a moment, it appeared Warren might get some relief—an aggressive debate night performance against former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in Las Vegas opened up the fundraising spigots. Lau took to Twitter to spin a path forward on Nevada caucus night, saying the campaign “raised $9m in 3 days & more than $21m this month.”
But it didn’t help her shore up a win in a state where early voting had begun a full week before and in the immediate aftermath of the results, Lau even acknowledged Sanders’ strength. “Sanders had a good result in Nevada,” he said, in a comment that other progressives echoed. Indeed, some contend Warren’s Nevada finish was less about her own ground game and more a sign of how the Vermont senator had already swarmed the state.
“The Sanders campaign was relentless in Nevada and that is why they won,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive Democratic strategist. “They didn't take one vote for granted and they went super-hard in communities of color, working-class communities.”
For the past several days, Warren has repeatedly pledged to move forward to March 3, where the bulk of the primary’s delegates will be up for grabs. Lau noted that Sanders’ performance “doesn’t change the state of play for Super Tuesday.” But to get there, she’ll have at least two more hurdles—a debate on Tuesday night and the South Carolina primary, where she is currently polling in fifth place. Her failure to either find a win or build a broad coalition makes her path forward even more difficult.
"She was trying to be that unity candidate that appealed across different factions of the party and she wound up not being able to satisfy any significant part of the party," said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.
Back in Iowa, Leo agreed. “I’m not convinced the pivot to being the unity candidate was enough. They wanted to see Elizabeth the fighter, and they finally saw her last Wednesday night.”