CONCORD, N.H. — President Joe Biden’s push to strip New Hampshire of its prized role at the start of the nominating calendar has left some of his top backers here divided over how to respond.
One approach that’s gaining momentum — rallying support for a write-in campaign — is increasingly seen as a risky proposition that may only serve to underscore Biden’s vulnerability heading into the general election.
Biden’s name will not be on the New Hampshire ballot on Jan. 23. The state decided to skip ahead of the order that the Democratic Party — and the president — wanted for the primary calendar. By doing so, it faces sanctions from the Democratic National Committee.
To the organizers of a new “Write-in Joe Biden” campaign, the so-called grassroots effort is not just a way to demonstrate the depth of support for the president, but give organizing efforts a test run ahead of the bigger fight to come next November when New Hampshire’s electoral votes could be crucial.
“This is really about making sure that we have the foundation built so that in November we can carry New Hampshire and get those four electoral votes,” Jim Demers, one of the leaders of the write-in campaign, said in an interview. “A really good, strong showing by the president is critical.”
But others fear that the exercise can only fail, either with Biden falling short of the kind of convincing win an incumbent should expect, or Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips, the main Democratic challenger whose name is on the ballot, scoring an outright victory on primary day.
One such Democrat, who requested anonymity to discuss concerns about Biden’s predicament, referred to historical precedent. In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson also wasn’t on the New Hampshire ballot. Though he won nearly 50% of the vote as a write-in candidate, Eugene McCarthy’s surprisingly strong second-place finish was an ominous signal of Johnson’s declining support. Just weeks later, Johnson announced he would not seek a second full term.
Phillips is hoping history repeats itself.
“A relatively unknown Minnesota senator came here in 1968 for very similar reasons — a president who was very unpopular. Young people completely angry and disenfranchised about their voices not being heard as it related to the Vietnam War,” Phillips told NBC News when asked about the Biden write-in effort. “I’m in this to win it. I intend to, but if that opens the door to someone who is better able to do it and voters decide that, I will get behind that person in the same way I’m getting behind my campaign.”
There’s also a third camp here — former Biden backers who have already defected largely in protest of the president’s primary slight.
“I understand why he wants to run in South Carolina. He owes a lot to that state and its congressional delegation. But I cannot see this idea to write in Joe Biden’s name when he’s basically said, ‘I want to do away with your first in the nation primary,’” said Stephen Shurtleff, a former speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives who had endorsed Biden in the crowded 2020 Democratic primary. “I look at it as asking us to reward negative behavior.”
Biden’s first two presidential campaigns, in 1988 and 2008, didn’t last long enough for him to compete in the New Hampshire primary. In 2020, fearing another disappointing finish after stumbling in Iowa, Biden left the Granite State before polls even closed on Election Day to plant his flag in South Carolina.
His dominant win there nearly three weeks later was the catalyst for a stunning springboard to the Democratic nomination, a fact that was not lost on Democrats when he rewarded the Palmetto State with the first voting slot in 2024.
New Hampshire Secretary of State Dave Scanlan made it official Wednesday that his state would hold its primary Jan. 23, defying Biden’s preferred pecking order that also was to force the New England state to share its primary date with Nevada.
Scanlan’s announcement included some unsubtle jabs at Biden and the Democratic National Committee. He spoke before an array of flags that New Hampshire had carried into South Carolina battlefields during the Civil War.
“We did not take the first of the nation primary from anyone, and we will vigorously defend it,” Scanlan said.
Biden’s campaign says it’s not involved in the write-in effort, instead putting its focus on states like South Carolina that are following the DNC’s preferred calendar. Vice President Kamala Harris underscored that on Friday with a last-minute trip to file Biden’s paperwork in South Carolina personally.
Ray Buckley, the New Hampshire Democratic Party chair, downplayed the risks for Biden of staying off New Hampshire’s ballot.
“We always enjoy a robust primary,” said Buckley, who noted he has written in Jimmy Carter’s name every four years since he became party chair. “I think that the Democrats in New Hampshire are very excited about writing in Joe Biden. I think that’s what they’re going to do. But it’s a long time between now and Jan. 23.”
Demers said write-in organizers have seen strong early support for their campaign since launching it two weeks ago. He said the group hopes to raise sufficient funds between now and the primary for staff and voter education efforts — but that to be successful it would also need more significant funding for paid advertising.
“There has been talk that there are groups that are interested. So we expect that this grassroots effort will be augmented by independent expenditures as well,” he said.
Demers says the group has another goal in mind: helping convince national Democrats ahead of decisions about the 2028 calendar that New Hampshire deserves its prized early role.
“If New Hampshire voters, New Hampshire Democrats come out, write in the president, show that they still want to be part of this process, it gives us a story to tell,” he said.