The Very Weird, Very Important Test Facing Biden In New Hampshire

The Granite State will shape narratives even if it doesn’t award any delegates.
Campaign signs asking voters to write in President Joe Biden in next Tuesday's primary election stand along the road in Loudon, New Hampshire, on Jan. 19.
Campaign signs asking voters to write in President Joe Biden in next Tuesday's primary election stand along the road in Loudon, New Hampshire, on Jan. 19.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary does not seem like a great way to judge the strength of President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign. They have not spent a single dime on the contest. The primary will, as of right now, not award a single delegate to the Democratic National Convention in July. Many of the state’s independent voters are expected to vote in the contested GOP primary instead. Biden is not even on the ballot.

New Hampshire, however, has a way of shaping narratives even if it doesn’t award many — or any, in this case — delegates. And as the 81-year-old Biden continues to seek to calm Democratic worries about his ability to defeat former President Donald Trump a second time, the fate of a write-in effort in the state could take on meaning far greater than the vote’s actual impact.

Standing in the way of Biden, who remains the overwhelming favorite for nomination, is moderate Rep. Dean Phillips, the heir to a distillery fortune who compounded his wealth with a stint as chairman of Talenti, the popular gelato brand. Phillips has invested millions of dollars of his own money disseminating his message that Biden’s poor poll numbers disqualify him from a Trump rematch.

The root of this admittedly confusing situation — a president’s allies mounting a write-in effort in a state where the votes won’t count — is the Biden-controlled Democratic National Committee’s decision to strip New Hampshire of its first-in-the-nation primary status. When New Hampshire’s state government predictably refused to switch the date, the central party body invalidated its convention delegates and vowed to punish any candidate who campaigned there.

Even before Phillips announced his bid, the prospect of an embarrassing blowout in New Hampshire had forced Biden’s allies into a furtive embrace with the flinty northern New England state that the national Democratic Party thought it had cast aside.

“There’s incredibly deep support for the president in the state. He has very deep support for the bills that he’s passed — and particularly on issues like reproductive rights and the economy,” said state Sen. David Watters, a leader in the Granite State Write-In initiative. “We wanted to be able to show that support really as a first step in the general election.”

Phillips and his allies, meanwhile, are insisting that earning even 20% of the vote would justify continuing his still-quixotic campaign against Biden.

U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) speaks to voters in Nashua, New Hampshire, on Saturday. His spirited, last-minute campaign has raised the stakes of the pro-Biden write-in effort.
U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) speaks to voters in Nashua, New Hampshire, on Saturday. His spirited, last-minute campaign has raised the stakes of the pro-Biden write-in effort.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images

“Dean Phillips is going to do well in New Hampshire. He’s going to do well in Michigan,” Phillips’ senior adviser Jeff Weaver said, referring to Michigan’s presidential primary on Feb. 27 and notably skipping over the first contest to award delegates, Feb. 3 in South Carolina. “And if he does well in Michigan after doing well in New Hampshire, the entire rationale for the president’s reelection campaign goes out the window.”

While Watters is running the grassroots write-in effort, local Biden supporters are calling in the heavy guns as well. With help from national donors, New Hampshire Democrats have mounted a well-funded campaign to get the state’s Democrats to write Biden in as the nominee.

Granite for America, a super PAC run by former New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairwoman Kathy Sullivan, has spent about $1.5 million on direct mail, digital and radio advertisements encouraging voters to write in Biden. Much of those advertisements and literature are dedicated to providing instructions on how to select the write-in option on the ballot, and write in Biden’s name.

Granite State Write-In, the leaner political action committee with which Watters is affiliated, is coordinating get-out-the-vote events and grassroots mobilization efforts across the state. The group’s events have attracted a number of high-profile Democrats from out of state, who are eager to show their support for Biden, even if the candidate and his campaign remain officially out of the fray. This weekend’s political celebrity guests included Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, and Rep. Ro Khanna of California’s Silicon Valley region.

And while the Biden campaign has stuck to the DNC rules of ignoring New Hampshire, there have been unofficial efforts to rally the state’s Democrats. In the past two months, no fewer than nine Biden administration Cabinet members have visited New Hampshire on official business. Granite State Democrats regard it as a covert show of support for the write-in effort.

Supporters of the Biden write-in initiative say that a simple win for Biden would count for success, regardless of the margin. Asked whether getting a majority is needed to count as a strong performance from Biden, Khanna said that a “win” would suffice.

“I don’t want to set the expectations, but my sense is that he’s going to do very well,” he added.

Khanna had just finished joining a couple dozen grassroots write-in volunteers holding signs with write-in instructions at a major intersection in Dover, New Hampshire.

Salme Perry of Rollinsford and Cora Quisumbing-King of Dover told HuffPost that they were braving the cold to campaign for voters to write in Biden because they valued his legislative accomplishments on climate policy, infrastructure and microchips.

The pair of semi-retired Democratic activists saw a secondary benefit in their efforts on the president’s behalf: persuading Biden to reconsider New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation status ahead of the next cycle.

“Maybe if Biden gets a good win, he’ll rethink the whole thing.”

- Salme Perry, New Hampshire Democratic activist

“Maybe if Biden gets a good win, he’ll rethink the whole thing,” Perry said.

Indeed, the sizable budget and enthusiasm of the Biden write-in campaign appears to be bearing fruit. The most recent public poll of the New Hampshire Democratic primary shows Biden leading Phillips 58% to 28%, with self-help author Marianne Williamson getting 3%.

Weaver, the Phillips campaign senior adviser, emphasized that the poll results might be skewed by the fact that pollsters cite Biden as a choice, and on Tuesday, voters will have to write him in without him being listed as an option on the ballot.

He also argued that it would be disappointing for Biden to get less than 80% in New Hampshire, a threshold that the two most recent incumbent Democratic presidents easily passed during their reelection bids (albeit when they were actually on the ballot).

“Dean Phillips is more likely to beat Joe Biden than Nikki Haley is to beat Donald Trump,” Weaver said.

Sullivan put it differently. “If the pressure’s on anybody, it’s on Phillips,” she said. “If he doesn’t do well, I don’t see how it will continue.”

The festering controversy over Biden’s decision to demote New Hampshire on the Democratic primary schedule looms over the Democratic contest on Tuesday. The New Hampshire Democrats running the write-in campaign and those supporting Phillips’ campaign agree on one thing: That the DNC’s decision to effectively cancel the state’s Democratic primary was a grave mistake.

These critics of the DNC note that the state’s small size, large population of independents, and tradition of being first-in-the-nation make it a useful testing ground for any candidate.

“The New Hampshire primary has shown its value over 118 years,” Watters said. “I don’t think it’s because New Hampshire people want to preen or hog the spotlight.”

Trump is seeking to capitalize on the dissension within the Democratic Party over New Hampshire’s status.

He joked at his Saturday night rally in Manchester that he hoped Phillips would win.

“Let’s see how an unknown congressman — nobody ever heard of this guy — let’s see how he does,” Trump said. “He might beat Biden. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

“I think Democrats should vote for the congressman just to send a signal: ‘You don’t abandon us like that. Nobody gets to abandon New Hampshire,’” he added.

President Joe Biden, center, prepares to speak in Charleston, South Carolina, on Jan. 8 after an introduction from Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), left. Biden's relationship with Clyburn helped fuel a decision to put South Carolina ahead of New Hampshire in the nominating process.
President Joe Biden, center, prepares to speak in Charleston, South Carolina, on Jan. 8 after an introduction from Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), left. Biden's relationship with Clyburn helped fuel a decision to put South Carolina ahead of New Hampshire in the nominating process.
The Washington Post via Getty Images

Biden evidently had the DNC make South Carolina first on the Democratic primary schedule as a display of gratitude to the House’s Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), whose endorsement in 2020 propelled Biden to clinch his party’s nomination. It was also the product of a strong push within the party to make the early primary states more reflective of the Democratic Party’s racial diversity. Iowa and New Hampshire — the sites of the previous inaugural contests — are predominantly white.

But unlike in Iowa, where Democrats botched their management of the caucuses in 2020, New Hampshire’s primary went off without a hitch. Also unlike Iowa, which has become solidly Republican in recent years, New Hampshire remains a purple state that has voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in every election since 2004.

This year, New Hampshire Democrats are fighting to maintain their hold on the state’s two U.S. House seats, as well as try to flip the governorship and the state legislative chambers. Absent the convening power of a presidential primary — even a noncompetitive one — the state’s Democrats worry about being able to generate the requisite level of excitement in November.

“In some respects though, the decision that was made was to have New Hampshire be irrelevant and be a nothing burger, instead with all the work that was done, the national press has given it a lot of coverage.”

- Kathy Sullivan, Granite for America super PAC

“I don’t think [the DNC] thought about the consequences for our state party,” Sullivan said. “The primary is an organizing tool.”

Sullivan, Watters and the other Granite Staters pushing for voters to write in Biden hope that their initiative can serve as at least some kind of an organizing substitute for a primary that had Biden on the ballot.

“In some respects though, the decision that was made was to have New Hampshire be irrelevant and be a nothing burger, instead with all the work that was done, the national press has given it a lot of coverage,” Sullivan said. “Here in New Hampshire, I’m satisfied that we have done what we can do.”

Phillips, however, is hoping that Biden and the national Democratic Party’s decision to snub New Hampshire will work to his advantage.

His campaign released a closing TV ad in which an actor dressed as Bigfoot — a mythical creature who exists only in people’s imagined sightings of him — described his fruitless quest to find Biden in the state. The Bigfoot character then compares Biden’s absence to Phillips’ ubiquitous campaigning.

“A politician that cares?” Bigfoot asks as the camera shows Phillips shaking hands with voters in the state. “Now that’s scarcer than Joe Biden in New Hampshire.”

Bigfoot even took a dig at Sullivan’s super PAC.

“I never did find Joe Biden. Now some big-money super PAC is telling us to vote for him?” he added. “Why write him in when he’s written us off?”

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