Biden and New Hampshire Democrats have a lot riding on a low-key write-in campaign

Joe Biden supporters would rather he win Tuesday’s Democratic primary in New Hampshire. State Democratic leaders want that too. But the trick for everyone involved has been figuring out how to make that happen since the president’s name doesn’t appear on the ballot.

That’s left the state’s Democratic establishment trying to spread the word about an unofficial campaign to write in Biden’s name – but not spread it so loudly that they risk embarrassing the president, and themselves, if someone else – like Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips – wins.

Biden did not register for the New Hampshire ballot following an internal party dispute over the date of the primary and the Democratic National Committee’s decision that the election effectively won’t count. Still, the fear is that not winning here would feed the narrative that he is weak heading into the general election. And state Democratic leaders want to avoid a win by a newcomer that could undermine their case to the DNC that their first-in-the-nation primary should be reinstated in 2028.

The deliberately low-key effort has so far been mostly about setting up signs, hosting Zoom calls and a few house parties, like one last weekend when a state representative’s 60th birthday party doubled as an organizing event. Hundreds of people have now trained on how to stand outside polling places on primary day and explain to voters how and why to write in Biden’s name.

The Biden campaign has been keeping the write-in effort beyond arm’s length – and not just to abide by rules against coordination with an outside effort, or to stick by the president’s convictions about moving the first approved primary to South Carolina. Expecting a win out of a situation in which he’s not on the ballot has always seemed iffy at best, and aides wanted to preserve their ability to dismiss the results if they do turn out to be humiliating.

Officially, the Biden campaign will not celebrate a win. They will not spin a loss. Whatever happens on Tuesday, Wednesday will go by without the Wilmington headquarters acknowledging it. The campaign is declining comment on the effort, even anonymously, to anyone who asks.

Meanwhile, Phillips’ multi-million-dollar campaign – along with 20 other mostly prank and perennial candidates whose names are on the ballot – are left hoping that the weird circumstances might give them a chance to make political history, or at least make for an asterisk to political history.

Rep. Dean Phillips speaks during a campaign event at Post & Beam Brewing in Peterborough, New Hampshire, on January 17, 2024. - Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images
Rep. Dean Phillips speaks during a campaign event at Post & Beam Brewing in Peterborough, New Hampshire, on January 17, 2024. - Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images

Write-In Biden operatives don’t know what to make of the polls. Surveys that name Biden as an option may be overstating his support, they think, but those that leave him off may be understating it. If the president wins by any margin, though, they will trumpet that as a big win, arguing that he got the most votes in an election in which he wasn’t even on the ballot. And if he loses, they’ll argue that getting any chunk of votes in an election in which he wasn’t on the ballot shows how much support he has.

“I don’t know if we can prognosticate today, whether there’s going to be another snowstorm or what’s going to happen on that day, but a win is a win, and I think Joe Biden will get the majority of votes,” said New Hampshire Senate Democratic Leader Donna Soucy, speaking at a Write-In Biden event on Wednesday joined by Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin and New Hampshire Rep. Annie Kuster.

Asked if she would still count it as a win if Biden won less than 50% of the vote, Soucy said yes.

The effort comes amidst an already peculiar New Hampshire primary environment.

“With the departure of Chris Christie from the Republican field, there has been new focus on independents writing in Biden,” said Jim Demers, a former state representative who helped put together the main Write-In Biden effort, which – along with a separate super PAC started by a former chair of the state Democratic Party – has been trying to break through to voters.

But with Democrats and independents allowed to vote in the Republican contest on Tuesday, Biden write-in operatives suspect that many of their potential voters will instead cast ballots for former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who’s been gaining momentum against former President Donald Trump in the Granite State. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s also a last-minute effort encouraging voters to write in “ceasefire” as a protest against Biden from the pro-Palestinian wing of the party.

Even the most insidery of a state stacked with political obsessives acknowledges there’s no telling what might happen. No one is even sure when election officials will be able to finish counting because New Hampshire has never seen a write-in effort of this scale.

Still, California Rep. Ro Khanna, who is eyeing a 2028 presidential run of his own and will be headlining several of the 20 get-out-the-vote events planned for this weekend, said he’s hoping the results send a message.

“New Hampshire voters reward candidates with a compelling economic vision and those who stand for individual rights, like a woman’s freedom to control her own body. A strong showing for President Biden will validate his ability to connect on those two key themes,” Khanna told CNN.

Phillips aiming to capitalize on Biden frustration

Few people actually understand why Biden isn’t on the ballot in the first primary state or why its results don’t technically count this year. Since the state refused to change a 1975 law dictating that New Hampshire must have the first primary in the nation (codifying what had been a tradition since 1920), its delegates to the summer convention were stripped by the DNC and penalties were put in place for any candidate who competed.

Phillips has turned Biden’s refusal to participate in the state’s primary into one of the core arguments of his candidacy, invoking it as both proof that the president is not committed enough to democracy and lacks the stamina to campaign. He’s said that Biden is insulting the state’s voters, and put up a closing ad featuring an actor dressed as Bigfoot, jabbing the president for being even harder to find in the state than the mythical creature and ending with the text on screen, “Why write him in when he’s written us off?”

In December, Phillips adviser Jeff Weaver had pegged 42% as a goal for the primary, since that’s how much Eugene McCarthy got when he came in second to Lyndon Johnson in New Hampshire in 1968. Weaver and others have since revised that number downward, insisting now that any sizable showing would be impressive, given the establishment forces arrayed against Phillips.

The campaign will try to lean into that with closing events that include a rally with Andrew Yang – the candidate who became a minor sensation in the 2020 Democratic primaries but has since left the party to start his own – on Thursday in Hanover.

“The fact that the president is not here, the fact that the Democratic Party is telling everybody this is meaningless, but yet they’re doing the writing campaign and have a super PAC set up here — think that is all you need to know,” Phillips said on Wednesday at a news conference in the state

Phillips described Biden’s approach as “the sad culture of politics,” saying, “when you have people whose focus is self-preservation, and ascension to higher offices, they will stay in line. They will toe the company line. They will do anything necessary to forego all their principles, even when they know they’re wrong.”

New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley – who furiously led the fight against DNC leadership to stop the primary calendar changes but is backing Biden – said he feels so many minds are made up on both the Republican and Democratic side that little is making an impact for a primary.

“Iowa’s dismal turnout puts a question mark on both sides of the primary,” Buckley said. “Big turnout is the only potential pathway to success for Haley or Phillips. They both need a surge of independents – but so far, I haven’t seen evidence of it, or a stirring message that could create such a wave.”

Phillips has a primary night party planned. The Write-In Biden campaign will end primary night over chicken tenders and ice cream at the famous Puritan Backroom restaurant in Manchester.

Biden – who has been avoiding the state for months but is expected to start reappearing as he tries to lock down the battleground he won in 2020 – will not attend.

CNN’s Ali Main contributed to this story.

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