Can Biden Win a Primary He Ignored?

As he stood on a frigid New Hampshire street corner on Saturday morning, Jim Demers was trying to persuade me that the fate of the republic hinges on today’s presidential primary—specifically, whether more people write “Joe Biden” on their ballot than fill in the bubble next to the names of his Democratic challengers. “This is an election like we’ve never seen before. This is one where democracy is on the ballot,” Demers, a lobbyist and former state representative, told me. “This is bigger than New Hampshire. This is about the future of America.”

It all sounded a bit overwrought. The Democratic Party has declared New Hampshire’s primary “meaningless,” and no delegates will be awarded based on the outcome. Democracy might be on the ballot, but the sitting president and the party’s all-but-certain nominee is not. Biden declined to file for the election or campaign in the state because of last year’s decision by the Democratic National Committee to ditch Iowa and New Hampshire as the earliest-voting states in favor of South Carolina. New Hampshire insisted on holding its first-in-the-nation primary anyway.

To Demers and a small but energetic group of party activists, the fight over the primary calendar is beside the point. As they see it, the results of today’s vote carry outsize significance—both to Biden’s viability in the fall and to the future of New Hampshire’s century-old tradition as a presidential proving ground. They are the organizers of the “Write-In Biden” campaign, a statewide grassroots effort aimed at offering the president a show of support—even if symbolic—to help him avoid an embarrassing result that could deepen Democratic worries about his electoral standing.

Given the unusual nature of the primary, the line between victory and humiliation remains murky. But Biden’s backers want to see him easily hold off Representative Dean Phillips and Marianne Williamson. “We want to make sure that headlines the day after the election are ‘He Wasn’t Even on the Ballot, and He Won. That’s Amazing!’” Donna McCay, a volunteer who was holding a Write-In Biden sign in Hampton, New Hampshire, told me.

Spending $70,000 over the past three months, Demers and a small group of operatives have mailed postcards, taken out ads, and issued yard signs instructing Democratic and independent voters how to cast a ballot for Biden. (It’s pretty simple: Fill in the oval next to “Write-In” and scrawl in “Joe Biden,” or even just “Biden.”) They’ve received help from a parade of local and national Democrats seeking to boost their own profiles in New Hampshire, but none officially from the Biden campaign.

Over the weekend, dozens of New Hampshire Democrats packed house parties and braved near-zero wind chills to stand outside and hold up signs alerting drivers to the write-in option. Many of those standing in the cold were almost as old as the two candidates likely to face off in the general election.

Polls in New Hampshire have shown a big advantage for Biden over Phillips and Williamson, but few people know what to make of them—incumbent presidents generally don’t rely on supporters to wage a write-in campaign on their behalf. One Democrat involved with the effort told me they wanted to see Biden crack 50 percent, which would match Donald Trump’s showing in Iowa, where the former president spent millions of dollars campaigning.

New Hampshire is fertile ground for a campaign like this. Its population is among the nation’s most highly educated and civically engaged—candidates in New Hampshire like to joke that “politics is the state sport.” It also helps that Biden is not a particularly hard name to spell.

Yet the write-in campaign is battling a number of obstacles in addition to Biden’s challengers. Anti-Trump independent voters, who can participate in either primary, must decide whether to back Biden or cast their ballot for Nikki Haley in the GOP contest. Biden allies argue that Haley’s chances of overtaking Trump are already shot. “You can try to game this process, but Biden is the only person who can beat Donald Trump,” John Carty, a Biden backer, told me. “A vote for Haley here might improve her showing in New Hampshire, but will it improve her chances of being the nominee? Most of us tend to think not.”

Then there is the lingering anger over Biden’s abandonment of the state. When the DNC told the state’s party chair that its primary would be “non-binding,” “meaningless,” and “detrimental,” New Hampshire’s Republican attorney general sent the national party a cease-and-desist letter.

Biden’s decision to stand by the DNC and skip the primary risks alienating constituents in a swing state whose four electoral votes could matter in a close presidential race. “It was a stupid political decision, equivalent to shooting yourself in the foot,” Colin Van Ostern, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2016, told me. “But I also vote for people I don’t agree with 100 percent plenty of times. And to me, it’s not complicated: Our democracy is at risk, and he is the one who can beat Trump.” (Both the Biden campaign and the DNC declined to comment.)

Phillips has tried to capitalize on Biden’s absence, occasionally to the point of hyperbole. “What was done to all of you is one of the most egregious affronts to democracy I’ve ever known in my lifetime,” Phillips told a packed audience at a restaurant in Hampton on Sunday, drawing applause. “A write-in vote for Joe Biden is a vote for Donald Trump, because he will lose to him.” As he spoke, a family in the front row held up posters distributed by Phillips’s campaign with an image of Biden on one side under the word MISSING. The other side read, Joe wrote you off. Why write him in?

The showing for Phillips—more than 100 people crowded in, shoulder to shoulder—suggests that his campaign has some momentum. But the turnout might reflect as much political tourism as electoral support: Of the first dozen or so people I encountered, I found residents of Massachusetts and Connecticut, visitors from Denmark, and a student group from Macon, Georgia, but not a single registered New Hampshire voter.

If nothing else, the Biden write-in campaign has succeeded in generating publicity for its cause; plenty of reporters and cameras trailed its volunteers and surrogates throughout the weekend. The risk, of course, is that a strong result for Phillips—a close second, say, or more than 40 percent of the vote—would seem more meaningful than it might have otherwise, making his candidacy more of a genuine threat to Biden.

But the president’s backers were growing more confident as the election neared. Despite his snub of New Hampshire, general-election polling in the state has shown Biden ahead of Trump and in far better shape than in other battlegrounds. Some Democrats are hoping that a decisive win for the presidential non-candidate will put New Hampshire back in the national party’s good graces and perhaps even restore its first-in-the-nation position for 2028. “If Joe Biden has a good win on a write-in effort, that gives New Hampshire a whole new story to tell,” Demers said.

As we spoke, more than 30 volunteers were holding up signs by the road. Some drivers honked in solidarity; others jeered in opposition. Representative Ro Khanna of California, a Biden surrogate, came over with donuts and kibitzed with the volunteers and reporters. Compared with the grand tradition of New Hampshire primaries, the display was enthusiastic but tiny.

If New Hampshire’s show of support was so crucial, I asked Demers, shouldn’t Biden be here? “I just want the president to be here next fall,” he replied.

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