MANCHESTER, N.H — Joe Biden's and Elizabeth Warren's poor finishes in New Hampshire raise daunting questions about the future of their campaigns after both former front-runners were denied podium positions by a late-surging Amy Klobuchar.
Biden appears set to finish fifth and Warren fourth — a stunning result for two candidates who were neck and neck for national front-runner status as recently as October — and NBC News projected Tuesday that neither of them would meet the threshold to collect any delegates.
Klobuchar impressed at the last debate and a widely covered dinner in Manchester in the last few days ahead of the primary. NBC News exit polls showed that nearly half of voters said they made up their minds in the final days, a significant increase from previous years.
Warren's clearest path to the nomination was one in which Pete Buttigieg flamed out early and cleared the way for her to win over white college graduates, a large Democratic constituency that is split between the two. But his top-two finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire have now put him at the top of the pack.
Biden — who fled New Hampshire early Tuesday — faces grueling questions about his future after his fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses led to new polls that showed him losing his front-runner spot and hemorrhaging support among the critical constituency that has buoyed him: African American voters. A fifth-place result in New Hampshire will only increase the intensity of the questions.
"We just heard from the first two of 50 states, not all the nation, not half the nation, not a quarter of the nation, not 10 percent — two, two," Biden said in South Carolina. "Where I come from, that's the opening bell."
At a Sanders primary night party in Southern New Hampshire University, some of his fans said Biden represents the past and not the future.
Biden "doesn't excite people. He's a nice guy, but he doesn't excite people," said Dani O'Brien, a social worker based here. "He's running a 2008 campaign, and it's 2020."
Recognizing that he was about to face a shellacking, Biden left town for friendlier terrain in Columbia, South Carolina, where he addressed a crowd as the New Hampshire primary results came in.
"I hear all these experts and pundits and tell them it ain't over, man. We're just getting started," he said.
At Warren's watch party in a covered tennis court near the Manchester airport, a screen displaying election results was turned off early as it became immediately apparent that the senator from neighboring Massachusetts was in for bad news.
But Warren's supporters showed little sign of despair as she took the stage and told them to prepare for "another one of those long primary fights that lasts for months," while her husband, son and now-famous golden retriever, Bailey, looked on from just off stage.
"Right now it is clear that Senator Sanders and Mayor Buttigieg had strong nights," she said. "And I also want to congratulate my friend and colleague Amy Klobuchar for showing just how wrong the pundits can be when they count a woman out."
She drew a sharper line to differentiate herself than in the past, positioning herself as the only candidate who could prevent a Democratic civil war and unify the party, warning Democrats that they couldn't repeat the "bitter" and "old divides" of the 2016 primary.
Warren's campaign was bracing for another rough night and tough questions about her future.
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
"The results here definitely challenged, like, the viability of her candidacy, but at the same time, she has a lot of important messages," Jack Tremain, a 19-year-old student from New York who was on a class trip to Manchester for his AP government class. "Of course, as a Bernie supporter, I would like to see her drop out so maybe we can get some of her support."
Earlier Tuesday, Warren campaign manager Roger Lau had sent a memo to supporters arguing that no candidate was likely to consolidate the field and that anything could happen with a wide field of flawed candidates.
"People who are predicting what will happen a week from now are the same people who a year ago predicted that Beto O'Rourke was a frontrunner for the nomination," he wrote.
On the eve of the primary, Warren herself climbed aboard the bus that ferries her press corps and appeared wistful talking about how just 10 years ago she was a professor who spent most of her time "shouting into the wind."
Now, she said, growing more determined, she had come too far and had too many people counting on her to quit.
"And I don't know what the effects are, but what I do know is that I just have to keep fighting," she said. "That's what it's all about. I cannot say to all those little girls, 'This got hard.'"