Politics / December 18, 2023

Biden’s Decision to Skip New Hampshire Is “Political Malpractice”

Grassroots Democrats can save him with a write-in campaign. But avoiding a battleground-state primary is not smart politics.

John Nichols
A demonstration of how to write in Joe Biden on the New Hampshire election ballot.

A demonstration of how to write in Joe Biden on the New Hampshire election ballot.

(WMUR)

Concord, New Hampshire—Kathy Sullivan was happily retired. The former chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party and Granite State representative on the Democratic National Committee had stepped down from several of the highest-profile political posts in the country and was enjoying life away from the demanding work historically associated with the “first in the nation” presidential primary.

Then a political earthquake hit Sullivan’s state. In February, the DNC decided to eliminate New Hampshire’s first-primary status for the 2024 presidential election. Instead, the candidate selection process would begin in South Carolina, which would hold a low-profile vote in late February of 2024—weeks after Republicans, who have gleefully embraced the traditional schedule of holding first caucuses in Iowa and the first primary in New Hampshire, were set to begin voting for their nominee.

Unfortunately for the DNC, New Hampshire went ahead with an unsanctioned Democratic primary—one in which Biden, following the new party rules, is not competing, but where a crowd of other Democrats, including 2020 Democratic presidential contender Marianne Williamson and US Representative Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) will be on the ballot.

“No one in Washington stopped to think that this could create a big problem for the incumbent president,” Sullivan explained to me in September. “What if the president loses the first primary? Can you imagine how embarrassing that would be? What if he doesn’t get a majority of the vote? Do you think that won’t be mentioned in the media? Republicans wouldn’t stop talking about it.”

Sullivan worried that a first-primary setback for Biden could be a catastrophe for her party and her president. So this fall, she dug out her Biden-Harris T-shirt from 2020 and headed to the state Democratic convention, determined to avert disaster by organizing an unofficial grassroots Biden campaign in a state that the president and his aides were trying to avoid.

The former state party chair was facing a reality that Biden strategists and DNC members had failed to sort out in their heads before upending the primary schedule. New Hampshire voters—whether Democrats, Republicans, or independents—love their “first in the nation” status. It is part of their identity, as much as maple syrup and “Live Free or Die” license plates. New Hampshire state officials, furious that their cherished position of influence was being taken away, had made it clear from day one that they would refuse to accept the DNC’s decision. Armed with a law that required the state to go first, no matter what any committee had to say, they were going ahead with an unsanctioned Democratic primary on the same day—January 23, it was eventually decided—that Republicans would be voting.

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Sullivan knew enough about New Hampshire politics, and about how the national media covers New Hampshire primaries, to see that this could end badly for Biden. Polls had consistently placed the president well ahead of other Democrats who were running and actively campaigning in the state, such as Williamson and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (who eventually decided to scrap his Democratic primary challenge to Biden and mount an independent bid.

But those surveys, initially at least, assumed that Biden would actually be on the ballot. And they failed to take into account well-organized efforts, promoted by the independent Tell It Like It Is PAC and backers of Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie, to get Democrats and independents who lean Democratic to vote in the Republican presidential primary to prevent former president Donald Trump from winning. More recent polls have shown that Biden’s write-in bid is supported by most likely Democratic primary voters; a November Emerson College survey found that Williamson was attracting 15 percent of the potential vote, Phillips was at 10 percent, and 27 percent said they definitely planned to write in Biden.

Biden is all but certain to do better than that, and there are polls suggest he could well finish with a clear majority. But Emerson College Polling Executive Director Spencer Kimball explained, “As Biden is not officially on the ballot in New Hampshire, Democratic Primary voters appear to be confused on which candidate to support and how to vote for them.”

Without a smart and energetic push to get Democrats to turn out and vote as Democrats, Sullivan has been warning for months now that the primary could go awry.

“It’s not like it hasn’t happened before,” she notes.

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With her deep family roots in the politics of the state, Sullivan knew enough about New Hampshire history to recognize that the threat was real. This is the state that derailed the reelection bids of Harry Truman, who quit his 1952 run just weeks after Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver upset him in New Hampshire, and Lyndon Johnson, who withdrew from the 1968 campaign after finishing only narrowly ahead of Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy’s anti–Vietnam War bid. In November of both those years, the eventual Democratic nominees lost New Hampshire and the presidency.

These are different times. Biden faces much less serious opposition within the party, and the likelihood of his quitting his reelection bid is remote. But like Truman and Johnson, Biden’s going into his reelection campaign with weak national poll numbers. A poor showing in New Hampshire, even in an unsanctioned primary, Sullivan argued, could do real harm.

So, after months of begging the president and the DNC to reconsider, Sullivan and a group of senior Democrats decided to take matters into their own hands. They showed up at the state party convention in late September, decked out in Biden bling and carrying clipboards that asked Democratic activists to commit to take on the task of knocking doors and making phone calls this coming winter with an urgent message: Write in Joe Biden.

Sullivan and her compatriots know that write-in campaigns are hard work. “You have to show up to vote for someone who isn’t on the ballot, you have to find the place to write their name in, and then you have to make sure you get anything wrong,” she says. If that weren’t enough of a burden, Biden isn’t expected to come anywhere near New Hampshire, and may even be pressured to reject the effort as an affront to DNC rules. But Sullivan won’t be deterred. “Despite the fact that the DNC doesn’t want to start things for Joe Biden, we’re going to jump-start it for Joe Biden,” she says. “Nature abhors a vacuum. If there isn’t a Biden campaign, the president could be embarrassed, and we’re not going to let that happen.”

New Hampshire party activists, many of them veterans of the long struggle to make the Democratic Party a viable force in the historically Republican state, now feel like they have been saddled with the task of saving the Democratic Party from itself. And they’re frustrated.

Biden’s 2024 reelection campaign will be a multibillion-dollar effort that employs the best political talent both in the Democratic Party and in supportive unions and liberals organizations. His bid is being pitched as a crusade not just to reelect a Democratic commander-in-chief but to save American democracy from the threat posed by Donald Trump’s election result-denying, violence-threatening MAGA Republicans. Biden himself says the stakes could not be higher. “I know that if the other team, the MAGA Republicans, win, they don’t want to uphold the rule of law,” the president declared in early October, adding that “somehow we’ve got to communicate to the American people that this is for real. This is real.”

Yet White House political strategists and DNC members, the people who say they are desperate to communicate to voters—and the potential voters who need to be energized to come out to vote in November 2024—decided to mess with the 2024 primary schedule in a way that Granite Staters fear will give Republicans a PR boost. “Not being here reinforces the impression that he’s too old,” says Arnie Arnesen, a New Hampshire radio host and former Democratic state legislator and gubernatorial nominee. “It leaves a void that the Republicans are going to fill. You know that.”

New Hampshire Democrats are not the only ones who are concerned.

“Joe Biden should not be skipping New Hampshire. He should be on the ballot and he should be campaigning in Manchester and Concord and Portsmouth and Berlin, in communities across the state,” says US Representative Ro Khanna, who cochaired the 2020 campaign of Vermont Senator (and repeat New Hampshire primary winner in 2016 and 2020) Bernie Sanders, and who this year is a top surrogate for the Biden campaign. “New Hampshire is going to hold the first primary. That’s one thing. But New Hampshire is also a swing state, with four electoral votes that are going to matter if it’s a close race in November.”

Arguing that it is “political malpractice” to avoid New Hampshire, Khanna, a potential 2028 Democratic presidential contender, has made frequent trips to the state to promote the president’s reelection bid. The congressman has talked up Biden at party events and labor gatherings, but he says, “People need to see the president in New Hampshire.”

Khanna’s right. But that’s not going to happen.

While much of the criticism for the reshuffling of the primary schedule is directed at the DNC, serious political observers know that party committees do not chart their own courses when incumbent presidents are seeking reelection. Biden and his team wanted to make the switch, as DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee cochairs Jim Roosevelt Jr. and Minyon Moore explained at a committee meeting in December 2022, so that was what was going to happen. New Hampshire DNC members and party leaders objected, but the DNC quickly implemented the White House–favored plan to start in South Carolina, with Nevada and New Hampshire voting on the same day a week later, followed by Georgia and then Michigan.

The argument for the shift was compelling. “For decades, Black voters in particular have been the backbone of the Democratic Party but have been pushed to the back of the early primary process,” Biden explained in a letter to the DNC. “We rely on these voters in elections but have not recognized their importance in our nominating calendar. It is time to stop taking these voters for granted, and time to give them a louder and earlier voice in the process.”

While Biden didn’t mention specific states, no one missed the point. The traditional first-caucus state of Iowa—which was marginalized after a disastrous 2020 process led to long delays and incorrectly reported results from across the state—is the seventh-whitest state in the nation. And New Hampshire’s even whiter, ranking number four. According to the diversity measures developed by the Wisevoter research project, New Hampshire’s electorate ranks number 48 in the US. In contrast, South Carolina ranks number 23. Georgia’s number 10, while Nevada’s number three.

As he was finishing fifth in the 2020 New Hampshire primary, Biden was already in South Carolina, telling supporters, “I want you all to think of a number: 99.9 percent. That’s the percentage of African American voters who have not yet had a chance to vote in America.” Biden’s math was right, as was his strategy. He bet everything on a big win in South Carolina to revive his flailing candidacy that year and, with a boost from the state’s sole Democratic member of Congress, Jim Clyburn, he got it—surfing a wave of Black support to a win with almost 50 percent of the vote. Understandably, Biden has a warm spot in his heart for South Carolina.

The problem, as critics of the new primary schedule point out, is that South Carolina isn’t exactly the sort of swing state where a Democratic contender can use a big primary win to prove themselves as a potential November contender. The last time South Carolina gave its electoral votes to a Democrat for president was in 1976, when the former governor of the neighboring state of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, prevailed. Carter lost the state in 1980 and no Democrat has come close over the ensuing four decades. Trump beat Biden by almost 300,000 votes in South Carolina in 2020, and in 2024 there’s at least a chance that he will be running on a ticket with a member of the state’s dominant Republican Party, either former governor Nikki Haley or Senator Tim Scott. As a November battleground, Arnesen argues, “South Carolina is moot.”

That prompts the question: If the point were to start with a diverse electorate, why not begin in a swing state that is both more diverse than South Carolina and more up for grabs in 2024, like Nevada or Georgia? The honest answer is that Biden and his team took the easy route, going for a plan that starts in a state where, thanks to ongoing support from Clyburn and other South Carolina Democratic leaders, the president barely needs to lift a finger.

That makes a certain amount of sense if you’re a president coasting to an easy reelection victory in a calm political environment. But the strategy doesn’t really work in a high-stakes year like 2024, says Khanna, who argues, “Democrats need to be thinking about how they take the spotlight away from the Republicans, not hand it to them.”

And, of course, the strategy becomes downright disadvantageous when New Hampshire officials refuse to play along. New Hampshire Democrats knew that would be the case. They told Biden. They told the DNC. Party leaders in D.C. should have recognized what was at stake in a place where a permanent historical marker just across from the state Capitol in Concord identifies New Hampshire’s starting gate primary as the “critical first step on the road to the White House” and explains, “Taking their responsibility seriously, New Hampshire voters test contenders during the months leading up to the primary and have usually favored the candidate who ultimately attains the Oval Office.” Like it or not, New Hampshire was never going to give up its first-in-the-nation position, even if the DNC threatened to refuse to seat some or all of the state’s 2024 Democratic National Convention delegates.

Arnesen worries that the neglect of New Hampshire is indicative of a broader disengagement from the primary season by the Biden camp and the DNC. Instead of seizing every opening to get the message out during the first months of 2024, not just with speeches but by engaging with voters in early primary and caucus states where retail politics is still possible, she sees a Biden campaign that is starting too slow and too late.

“Fall elections are not a time to teach. That’s not when you try out new messages and figure out what connects with voters,” she says. “It’s not just about people seeing Biden, although that’s important. It’s also about what the president sees and hears. Coming to New Hampshire, coming to all the primary states, gets him out of Washington and into contact with the people. It lays the groundwork for the general election. You don’t do that in the fall of 2024. You have to do that in the fall of 2023 and in the winter of 2023 [and] 2024. That’s how you frame the debate.”

There’s not much evidence at this point that Biden is framing the debate in New Hampshire—or in other primary states, for that matter. But Republican candidates are everywhere, and they’re blaming the president for everything from inflation to an unstable world. Trump’s a regular visitor to New Hampshire, dismissing Biden as “dumb as a rock” and claiming that the war in Ukraine and the battle between Israel and Hamas “would never have happened” if Biden weren’t in office. When Trump is not dominating the local news, a welter of other GOP contenders are filling the void. Haley alone has made dozens of stops in the state, focusing attention on small cities and towns such as Lancaster and North Conway, where she grabs the headlines in local papers with the message, “We want to make sure every person hears us, sees us, knows that we fought for their vote.”

New Hampshire voters aren’t hearing and seeing Biden on the campaign trail. His profile on the ground is much lower than that of the outsiders who are mounting Democratic primary challenges. Until he quit the Democratic race in early October and switched to an independent run, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was drawing substantial crowds of the curious if not committed—close to 1,000 people when I saw him in Rye, N.H., in September. Williamson’s crowds are smaller, but her message includes support for a Gaza cease-fire, averting a war in the Middle East, and moving domestic policy to the left. She reminds the dozens, sometimes hundreds, of voters who show up for her events in cafés and community centers that she’s giving them an opportunity to send an anti-establishment message by voting for a “disrupter” candidate. Voters appreciate the attention. And they’ve taken note of the fact that they’re not getting it from Biden.

“If he’s really going to be a candidate, he should act like one,” said Bonnie Spaulding, who I ran into outside the Rye event. Her daughter, Hannah, nodded. Noting the crowds that had come out at events she’d attended with Kennedy and Williamson, Hannah Spaulding said it was a big mistake for Biden to skip New Hampshire. “If there are any people who are going to be offended by a candidate not showing up,” she explained, “it’s Granite State voters.”

New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Ray Buckley is well aware of that danger. He fought diligently to prevent the shift in the primary calendar. Now that that fight is over, he dutifully declares that Biden will win the primary and prevail in November, but he has warned that not being on the primary ballot and not campaigning in the state has the potential to create a “self-inflicted wound” for the president.

That’s what Sullivan and her crew want to prevent with their write-in campaign. They know New Hampshire and they’re good at grassroots politics. So they will probably save the president from the immediate embarrassment of losing the first primary. Well-organized write-in campaigns have succeeded before in the state—famously, a grassroots write-in campaign for Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. beat Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater in the 1964 New Hampshire Republican primary, and LBJ held his own in that 1968 Democratic primary with Gene McCarthy.

But Sullivan has an ulterior motive that goes beyond merely winning the most primary votes for Biden. She wants to generate excitement in the primary that will carry over to November, when New Hampshire Democrats will have to turn out in big numbers if they’re going to win the swing state for the president, hold congressional seats, secure the governorship, and flip control of the state legislature. Arnie Arnesen, the former Democratic gubernatorial candidate, shares that hope. But she worries that, even with a write-in campaign, an opportunity is being lost. Even when Biden wins the primary, as she suggests is likely, Arnesen warns that “he still won’t get the boost that comes from having campaigned here, and that’s what matters for November.”

Sitting in her Concord home, a few blocks from the state capitol, Arnesen pauses to explain that she doesn’t want to come off as a simplistic cheerleader for her state. “I’m not trying to protect the New Hampshire primary. I’m trying to protect the country. Biden’s got to win in November and, to do that, he’s got to take advantage of every opening the primaries give him. One of the biggest openings is in New Hampshire, but the DNC refuses to accept that. They made a stupid, stupid mistake. They created a void that hurts Biden. The Republicans are acting like there’s an election. The Democrats are not.”

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John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

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