February 25, 2024

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Like a jilted lover reluctantly coming to the aid of a former partner in need, New Hampshire Democrats have largely decided to help Joe Biden win their beloved primary this month — even though many are still mad he tried to kill it.

“I love Joe Biden, I think he’s just been a great president,” said former state Democratic Party Chair Kathy Sullivan, now running a pro-Biden super PAC. “Having said that, I’m still pissed. But you compartmentalize that. You just put that aside.”

Last year, Biden tried to end New Hampshire’s 100-year reign as the nation’s first presidential primary state when he directed the Democratic National Committee to overhaul the 2024 primary calendar by putting South Carolina (which he won in 2020) ahead of New Hampshire (which he lost).

His allies are now waging what has to be one of the most unusual campaigns in American presidential history ahead of next week’s vote: A write-in campaign with a shoestring budget on behalf of the most powerful man in the world, trying to help him win a contest in which he is not technically competing and one which he would rather see not even exist.

New Hampshire, whose political class holds the primary as sacred as the Red Sox, just went ahead and scheduled its primary in its usual place right after Iowa’s caucuses, essentially telling the DNC to go pound granite and even threatening the committee with legal action. (As a result, the DNC says it won’t seat New Hampshire’s delegates at the summer nominating convention.)

“It’s safe to say in New Hampshire, the DNC is less popular than the New York Yankees,” quipped the state Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley, who ran for DNC chair not long ago.

For Biden, the upshot of the standoff is a bizarre no-win situation. He is prohibited by his own party rules from competing in the Jan. 23 primary since it is officially “meaningless,” according to the DNC. The party will not recognize its results. And he did not even put his name on the ballot, so his supporters will have to write in his name.

But his performance against weak opposition from Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., and self-help author Marianne Williamson will nonetheless be judged as a measure of his political health at a moment when Democrats are already anxious about his campaign.

“This was political malpractice of the highest order because it was totally unnecessary and totally self-inflicted,” said a New Hampshire Democrat and Biden ally who has decades of experience in presidential primaries, requesting anonymity to speak candidly.

So, as much as some New Hampshire Democrats may have wanted to let Biden suffer for trying to take away their primary, the state’s party establishment began to come to the realization in the fall that they would have to step up to help the president do what he could not. 

Anything that hurts Biden, they concluded, helps Donald Trump, the likely GOP nominee.

“This is about the general election when you come right down to it,” said Democratic state State Sen. David Watters, a leader of the Biden write-in effort. “There’s too much at stake to have a snit or get our noses bent out of shape about the primary.”

In a sense, New Hampshire’s Democratic primary will be the first real-world test of the strategy on which Democrats are betting the entire election: That no matter what gripes Democratic-leaning voters may have with Biden — and polls show they have many — they’ll ultimately pull the lever for the president if the alternative means electing Trump.

“I think Democrats will come home,” said Terie Norelli, former New Hampshire House speaker and another leader of the write-in effort. “If anybody is upset about the primary, they need to realize that democracy is at stake.”

‘A weird thing to do’

Biden ended up in this strange predicament when he tried last year to do what many Democrats say is long overdue: Dethrone overwhelmingly white Iowa and New Hampshire and add more diversity to the top of the presidential primary process.

The Democratic National Committee, which essentially becomes the political arm of the White House when a Democrat is in occupancy, promptly ratified Biden’s wishes. Iowa went down easily since it was already on the chopping block after botching its 2020 caucuses. 

But the Granite State refused to budge. Armed with a century of history, its swing state status and a law mandating New Hampshire hold its primary a week before any others, the Republicans who control the government in Concord had no qualms about ignoring the DNC.

“We’re going first and the law says so because we’ve earned it,” Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said when the state set the date.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu speaks in Keene on Dec. 13.Kristopher Radder / The Brattleboro Reformer via AP

That impudence triggered DNC rules prohibiting any presidential candidate from campaigning in any state with an unauthorized primary and Biden abided. The rules prohibited him from spending money, giving a single stump speech, or even getting on the ballot in New Hampshire.

Democrats there stepped into the vacuum to help Biden — and, they hope, though they won’t say it publicly, themselves, curry favor with Biden that will pay off when the primary calendar comes up for consideration ahead of 2028.

Their main goal is simple: Make sure voters know how to write in Biden’s name on the ballot. “Start at the bottom of the ballot, fill in the oval for ‘write-in,'” one digital ad instructs, “Then write ‘Joe Biden’ on the line.”

They’re doing it without any help from — or even the explicit consent of — Biden and the vast party infrastructure he commands.

“It’s a weird thing to do,” Watters said. “But I actually find it very liberating. We can do whatever we damn please.”

The Biden write-in effort has no field offices. No staff army. No rallies. No TV ads. It’s being vastly outspent by Phillips, the wealthy gelato magnate who is partially self-funding his long shot primary challenge to Biden.

The budget for the main write-in campaign is somewhere around $70,000 — a comically paltry sum in modern presidential campaigns — which is mainly going toward printing signs explaining the write-in process and covering the cost of one staffer and one part-time consultant.

An affiliated super PAC would not disclose its budget. But a source familiar with the effort said it had raised roughly $500,000 by mid-December. That’s enough to pay for some mailers and some digital advertisements, but not enough to run television ads or staff a real field operation. 

“I wish we could, but I didn’t win the Powerball on Monday, so it’s not looking like we’re going to be able to afford TV,” said Sullivan, who is running the super PAC.

By comparison, Phillips’ campaign spent $589,000 on TV ads in New Hampshire during a single week between Christmas and New Years, according to AdImpact.

Phillips and Williamson have tried to capitalize on Biden’s slight. They’ve held debates where they slam his absence, and Phillips’ campaign put another $300,000 behind a TV ad portraying Bigfoot searching for Biden and sent voters mailers saying: “Joe wrote you off. Why should you write him in?”

There are 21 other Democrats on the ballot — New Hampshire makes it easy to run for office — and the space to write in Biden’s name comes directly under that of Vermin Supreme, the perennial candidate known for wearing a boot on his head.

Reading smoke signals

The leaders of the write-in effort all insist they have had no communication with the White House or the Biden campaign, but they see signs of approval in the travel patterns of national Democrats close to Biden who have visited the state. 

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro and House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries spoke at state Democratic fundraisers in the fall, while a slew of national Democrats — most of them on the Biden campaign’s national advisory board — have pitched in to help the write-in effort directly by making calls, speaking at events or soliciting donations.

Write-in supporters include Reps. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and Jamie Raskin, D-Md., Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Govs. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois and Maura Healey of Massachusetts have pitched in to help the write-in campaign directly. 

“I don’t think any kind of politics is ‘meaningless,'” Raskin said at a press conference in support of the write-in effort last Tuesday, when asked about the DNC, “So I guess I would take exception to that characterization.”

Meanwhile, nine Biden Cabinet secretaries have visited the state in the past six weeks, including four last week alone. All came on official business, to tout new federal programs, and none mentioned the primary. But it would hardly be the first time an administration has scheduled official visits with ulterior political motives, which is exactly how Granite State insiders view the visits.

“They aren’t up here to go skiing,” said one plugged-in New Hampshire Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity to speak about the political implications of the official trips. “There has just been a ton of folks coming through.”

Still, some Biden allies in the state worry that the write-in effort will unnecessarily raise expectations for the president, arguing that he might have an easier time shrugging off a disappointing showing in the primary if he were able to say he wrote off the state entirely. 

“They’re trying to have their cake and eat it too,” the veteran New Hampshire Democrat said. “They’re raising the stake unnecessarily.”

Recent Democratic presidents running for re-election have earned north of 80% of the vote in the state’s Democratic primary (Barack Obama got 81% in 2012, while Bill Clinton scored 84% in 1992). But, of course, their names were on the ballot.

Few think Biden will reach that threshold, since his supporters will have to write in his name and because he has real opponents. But no one knows exactly what will qualify as a good showing for Biden in the Granite State.

The president is polling somewhere between 50% and 70% support among New Hampshire Democrats in recent polls, but pollsters have struggled to capture the write-in dynamic.

Ultimately, most Democratic insiders say Biden just needs to not embarrass himself. 

And New Hampshire Democrats are convinced Biden is not going anywhere, careful to direct all their criticism at the DNC and not at the president himself, like feudal lords excoriating the king’s ministers while praising the man on the throne.

“I have no doubt that Joe Biden is committed to this state,” Watters said over coffee and between meetings about the flood of new federal money hitting his state, thanks to laws Biden signed. “I just think there was a lot of bad advice from the DNC.”