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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

October 25: Biden’s New Hampshire Write-In Campaign Probably Won’t Be Like LBJ’s

This week’s political news brought back some distant memories from 1968, and I wrote about that at New York:

Ever since Joe Biden convinced the Democratic National Committee to remove the first-in-the-nation status from the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary last December (in favor of a calendar placing South Carolina first), New Hampshire Democrats have been in a jam. They don’t control the date of their presidential primary; the Republican secretary of State does, and he’s under a state-law mandate to keep the Granite State’s primary first no matter what. So for a while now it’s been clear New Hampshire will hold a “rogue” Democratic primary on January 23, 2024. This election will not be recognized as legitimate by the DNC, exposing the state (and any participating candidates) to the loss of convention delegates and other sanctions.

Joe Biden’s campaign has now made it official: He will not file to be on the New Hampshire primary ballot. But sensing an opportunity to embarrass the incumbent early in what is not expected to be a competitive nominating contest, Biden’s two main challengers, Marianne Williamson and Dean Phillips, are going for broke in the rogue primary. Phillips, the Minnesota congressman who tried to talk Democrats into dumping Biden before entering the primaries himself, is about to make his candidacy official on October 27 in New Hampshire.

Williamson, an eccentric progressive who ran for president in 2020 but dropped out shortly before voters began voting, is very much a known quantity. She has received single-digit support in New Hampshire polls and at best low double-digit support in national polls; she could inherit some of the modest but significant anti-Establishment backing previously held by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who switched to an independent general election candidacy earlier this month. Phillips is more of a wild card, with more mainstream respectability than Williamson or Kennedy, but also with virtually no name ID outside Minnesota.

To head off an embarrassing upset in New Hampshire, that state’s Democratic Establishment is organizing a write-in campaign for Biden, who is the overwhelming favorite of Granite State Democrats (polling at 70 percent there in the RealClearPolitics averages), despite their disappointment in his removal of their primary’s premier status. This step will inevitably bring back distant memories of the last time an incumbent Democratic president ran a write-in campaign in New Hampshire against significant opposition: in 1968 when Lyndon B. Johnson underestimated the anti–Vietnam War candidacy of Eugene McCarthy. LBJ won, but by an unimpressive margin that contributed greatly to his subsequent decision to fold his campaign.

Could history repeat itself? Almost certainly not. Whatever misgivings Democrats have about Biden, they pale in comparison to the impassioned anti-war sentiment that fed opposition to LBJ in 1968. Marianne Williamson isn’t going to win in New Hampshire, and at this point, all Dean Phillips shares with the well-known Gene McCarthy is a home state.

Still, Team Biden needs to be careful in associating the president too closely with the New Hampshire write-in effort. He won’t be campaigning there at all, and it’s not exactly Biden Country; he finished a poor fifth in the 2020 New Hampshire primary. More importantly, any semi-decent showing by his opponents will be inflated and massively publicized by conservative media and perhaps by some Democrats nervous about Biden’s electability.

It’s tough to ask voters for their support in a primary that you have delegitimized. So the president’s campaign may need to loudly write off New Hampshire as meaningless in advance while privately hoping state party leaders can give him a solid win.

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