CONCORD, N.H. — On a bustling intersection near where every presidential candidate has signed up to run in New Hampshire, a small posse of local Democrats held up signs for someone who has not recently visited the state and will not be on the ballot in Tuesday’s Democratic primary: President Biden.
In a first-of-its-kind effort, some Democrats are trying early this election year to drum up a symbolic show of support for the president, who has faced no formidable primary challengers, even as he has drawn low approval ratings.
The unusual New Hampshire initiative is one of the results of a revamped Democratic nominating calendar. Biden and the Democratic National Committee moved South Carolina to the front of the pack, but New Hampshire decided to continue to hold its long-prized first-in-the-nation primary earlier, in defiance of the new party rules. The contest carries no practical weight since the DNC has stripped the state of its delegates to the nominating convention and Biden opted not to put his name on the ballot.
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But Democrats here say their vote has an important role to play — offering the first show of support for Biden in his party before other states hold contests. And Biden’s allies have been aggressive in promoting him in the state, with a super PAC run by a former party official spending more than $1.2 million on ads and mail, and many surrogates close to the campaign, including Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), campaigning for the write-in effort.
The actions underscore a desire by many Democrats for a show of strength as Biden battles low polling numbers, concerns about his age and worries about the general election within his party.
“Why does he need to do well in New Hampshire, which I think he will? Because New Hampshire matters because of all of you,” Khanna said, pointing to a gaggle of reporters surrounding him at a house party for the write-in campaign on Saturday. “Around the world, people will hear what happened here. I think what people need to capture is the momentum and the excitement around President Biden.”
Volunteers for the Biden write-in campaign will be standing outside many polling locations Tuesday with large versions of the Democratic ballot that show the write-in option filled in. The bubble beside the blank should be filled, and the voter should write in Biden’s name, they plan to explain. According to training materials provided by the secretary of state to election officials, variations will count, including: “Joseph Biden,” “Joe Bidon,” “J. Biden,” “Joey B.,” “President Biden,” “Joe and Kamala.”
As long as it appears the voter intended to write in Biden, it is considered a vote in the president’s favor. (Some New Hampshire activists have advertised an effort to write in “cease-fire” to demand the end of the Israeli bombardment on the Gaza Strip.)
A disparate assortment of state and local Democrats organized the write-in campaign in October. The Biden campaign declined to comment on the write-in effort.
The grass-roots effort is also relatively low budget. The group — which filed with the Federal Election Commission as “Granite State Write-In” — spent about $70,000, mostly on signs that give instructions to voters on how to write in Biden. It is not waging any mass door-knocking efforts, although some volunteers have approached neighbors to talk about writing in Biden.
There are no organized phone banks, except some stray Democrats dialing people in their contacts. And mailers have not been part of the strategy, minus those sent by a few local groups that organized postcard-writing parties. The digital operation is so small that campaigners only recently managed to get a QR code set up by some entrepreneurial volunteer.
But a super PAC that can spend unlimited sums called Granite for America was created in November by former New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Kathy Sullivan to offer support for the Biden write-in effort. It has invested $1.2 million, in part in print and online advertising.
“IN THE NEW HAMPSHIRE PRIMARY,” one mailer from the group said, “Abortion Access IS ON THE LINE/ Social Security IS ON THE LINE/ Democracy IS ON THE LINE.”
Part of the Biden write-in effort is about reminding voters that the president is running at a time when rival campaigns are much more active. A mile in one direction of where the organizers in Concord stood on Friday, a Donald Trump rally was set to take place later. As his supporters drove by, some honked, shouted and made hand gestures at the volunteers.
“That’s fine,” said Liz-Anne Platt, a Concord resident and Biden supporter, after one man with a Trump flag mounted to his black SUV drove by, horn blaring. “Democracy works when everyone participates, and we want people to participate.”
Farther down the street, a group backing Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), a long-shot Biden primary challenger, had convened in a coffee shop. The Phillips supporters included former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who walked over to greet the Biden sign-holders. The group members seemed unmoved, continuing to smile, wave and bounce their signs around in the 22-degree weather.
Much of the get-out-the-vote events and discussions that “Granite State Write-In” has convened have centered on explaining how writing in a candidate has worked. New Hampshire has never had write-in campaign of this magnitude. New Hampshire state Sen. David Watters, one of the write-in organizers and a longtime Democratic politician in the state, said he’s never seen anything like it.
“You can see how the Democrats know what’s at stake,” he said. “They’re really showing up.”
The effort relies on people like Sally Hatch, a 75-year-old Concord resident, who from her home, calls a list of Democrats who attended previous liberal campaign events — many of whom she knows herself — to ask them if they’ll spend two hours standing outside the polling locations with Write-In Biden signs. As of Saturday afternoon, she filled 52 of 60 spaces needed in two weeks. Whatever shifts she doesn’t find volunteers for, she and others will take turns doing.
The write-in organizers say that Democrats and independents are going to show up on primary day wanting to pick a candidate who is best positioned to defeat Trump, and the crux of their argument to voters is that Biden is a reliable option. They say long-shot Democratic candidates like Phillips and Marianne Williamson are lesser known and not well positioned to take on Trump, and Republicans have spoken positively of Trump on the trail. Biden has defeated Trump before, in 2020, they noted.
“We are going to do what the state of New Hampshire has always done, which is lead this country forward in protecting our democracy,” Cinde Warmington, a Democrat running for governor and a member of the state’s Executive Council, told volunteers Saturday at a house party in Concord.
The DNC has said the primary is “meaningless,” and no delegates will be appointed based on the results. That has created some friction with local Democrats hoping to keep New Hampshire first.
“The DNC rules were clearly misguided,” said former New Hampshire House speaker Terie Norelli, who has been one of the leaders of the write-in effort.
Turnout is not expected to be high. In a state where those unaffiliated with a party can choose to participate in either primary, the more competitive race on the Republican side is widely expected to draw more voters.
Over the weekend, voters received a call from what sounded like a digitally generated voice impersonating Biden that advised them not to vote on Tuesday, according to complaints that the New Hampshire attorney general is investigating. The call told voters: “It’s important that you save your vote for the November election.”
As they seek to build support for the write-in effort, some backers joke that the president’s name is easy to remember — and spell.
“It’s not easy to win a write-in campaign,” said Khanna, who has visited the state several times in recent months to support the write-in campaign. “I’d much rather have Joe Biden as a name than Ro Khanna. He’s blessed with good luck. If you want a write-in candidacy, you have to have a name that’s easy.”
The campaign has benefited from some national Democrats making appearances in the state in the lead-up to the primary. This past week, Khanna and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu joined some supporters standing outside holding signs.
Those leading the write-in effort have said they will be happy if Biden finishes on top. Around 70 percent of Democratic primary voters said they plan to vote for Biden, according to the University of New Hampshire’s poll in January.
Jim Messina, who is close with Biden’s inner circle and ran President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, said the closest parallel to the New Hampshire write-in effort is the 2010 election of Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) after she lost the Republican primary but then earned 39 percent of the general election votes as a write-in candidate.
“Not having a modern American political organization behind you — I think it’s super difficult,” Messina said. “And most important, [the New Hampshire primary] doesn’t matter,” so there could be low turnout, he said.
But that hasn’t stopped others from calling Biden out for not showing up. Phillips, who jumped into the race in October after urging other Democrats to challenge Biden and offer the party a competitive primary, has been a vocal critic.
Earlier this month, Phillips placed an ad on New Hampshire television, mocking Biden’s absence in the state by comparing him to Bigfoot.
“I thought I was good at hiding,” a Sasquatch-like character says in the spot.
On Saturday, Phillips showed up to where some of the write-in volunteers were standing with signs in Manchester, holding a carton of coffee and stack of cups. The interaction got a bit tense as some tried to shout over him.
“I know you’re not going to vote for me,” he responded. “But at least I’m on the ballot.”
Phillips later told The Washington Post he brought the volunteers coffee out of respect.
“Frankly, by taking some coffee outside to people practicing democracy — I don’t care if they are Democrats, Republicans or libertarians holding signs outside, God bless them,” he said. “I will show up every time.”
Michael Scherer contributed to this report.