CONCORD, N.H. – It’s a rite of passage for presidential candidates. But this time, President Joe Biden’s name won’t be on the New Hampshire ballot.
Biden has been tussling with the state for nearly a year over its historically early primary date and will not make the trip to Concord to file this week, USA TODAY has learned on Tuesday.
In a break with centuries-old tradition, the incumbent president will not appear on the state’s Democratic primary ballot at all – with national party pledging to discipline candidates who compete in unsanctioned primaries like the one New Hampshire plans to hold.
Biden’s reelection campaign notified New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley of the president’s decision on Tuesday evening, citing guidance from the national party urging campaigns not to place their candidates’ names on the ballot.
“Biden for President will refrain from submitting a Declaration of Candidacy for the Primary ahead of Friday’s candidate filing deadline for the Primary,” the letter said. “[T]he president looks forward to having his name on New Hampshire’s general election ballot as the nominee of the Democratic Party after officially securing the nomination at the 2024 Democratic National Convention where he will tirelessly campaign to earn every single vote in the Granite State next November.”
Other presidential candidates have been making the trip to the New Hampshire State House for the last two weeks to file their paperwork to compete in the 2024 primaries, but this time, Biden will not be among them.
The saga began last December when Biden proposed that South Carolina, the first state he won in the last competition, hold the first party-approved primary of the next presidential election.
Biden told members of the Democratic National Committee who were tasked with making the decision that New Hampshire and Nevada should share the date of the second primary election. He also advised them to demote Iowa, which has traditionally held the first caucus, and give Georgia and Michigan more influential contest dates.
In a letter outlining his decision, Biden said the changes to the Democratic schedule were necessary to empower voters of color and encourage candidates to invest in battleground states earlier. The party did what Biden asked, and earlier this year, the DNC voted to affirm the new calendar.
Members of the committee’s rule-making body say they will take away delegates from state parties and candidates who appear on the ballot in any contest that defies the approved order. That has led to fierce clashes with the state Republican-led state of New Hampshire over its refusal to change a state law requiring it to continue a more than 100-year tradition of holding the country’s presidential primaries.
Biden’s allies in the state are pursuing a workaround. They are putting the pieces in place for a write-in effort, which they hope will keep him from losing the first contest of his reelection campaign.
“We have had a growing number of prominent Democrats express interest in being on a grassroots committee. We have received a significant amount of financial pledges. We have done all of the research with the FEC and everything that’s needed. So now it’s just the final decision of whether to pull the trigger or not,” said Jim Demers, a Democrat in New Hampshire who is helping with the preparations.
Could eleventh-hour shuffling shake up the New Hampshire ballot?
Neither Biden nor his campaign had explicitly said he would not file in New Hampshire until Tuesday evening but Democrats inside and outside the state said for weeks that they did not expect him to.
Biden’s public schedule did not include a trip to New Hampshire this week, and no one affiliated with Biden had reached out to the New Hampshire secretary of state’s office to schedule a filing trip. Democrats in the state who have been actively involved in the conversations taking place about the primary said they were not aware of any plans for Biden to be on the ballot and had seen no activity that would give them any reason to think he was planning to file at the last minute.
He does not currently face a significant primary challenger, although there have been rumblings for days that Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota may launch a bid this week in New Hampshire. He has already missed the filing deadline for the Nevada primary and would not be eligible to win delegates in New Hampshire if put his name on the ballot there.
Phillips, 54, has openly encouraged a Democrat to challenge Biden, 80, for the party’s nomination. He has not said whether it will be him and a spokeswoman declined a request for comment.
Campaigns have until 5pm on Oct. 27 to submit the paperwork in New Hampshire.
Demers, a Democrat who co-chaired former President Barack Obama’s campaigns in New Hampshire and supports Biden, said the potential for Phillips to get in has not affected plans to write-in the incumbent president. Those plans were already in motion and organizers will be meeting this week to make a final decision, he said.
“As for Dean Phillips, it is way too late to be entering a presidential primary in New Hampshire,” he said. “I have had so many Democrats contact me, really annoyed with even the thought of somebody getting in at this point and especially a sitting member of Congress.”
The lobbyist and former member of the state legislature, whose Concord office sits across the street from the New Hampshire State House, said Democrats are looking ahead to next November’s general election. They are fearful that GOP frontrunner Donald Trump could be elected president again, Demers said.
“And they recognize that if Democrats go into November disunited, it does nothing but help Donald Trump,” he said. “So people are very focused on getting behind the president and they’re not very happy to hear about somebody thinking about getting in at this late date.”
Democrats fear a New Hampshire loss in the general election
Democrats in the state say they are worried that Trump, or whomever the GOP nominee is, will dump money into the state that has four electoral college votes. Had former Vice President Al Gore won New Hampshire in 2000, he would have become president.
Their arguments have done little to persuade members of the national party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee to let New Hampshire off the hook.
In an Oct. 24 memo to Democratic presidential campaigns that stressed the panel’s efforts to “increase the diversity and competitiveness of the process,” that was obtained exclusively by USA TODAY, the panel’s co-chairs, Jim Roosevelt, Jr. and Minyon Moore said that they have “no reason to expect” that New Hampshire will comply with its rules and its primary will be considered a “non-binding presidential preference event.”
“As such, we advise campaigns to refrain from including their candidate’s name on the ballot. Should your campaign have already filed, we advise your candidate to inform the RBC of its process to remove their name from the ballot should New Hampshire schedule its primary in violation of Rule 12,” they said.
“Campaigns should also remain cognizant that should they place the candidate’s name on the ballot or fail to take action to remove it from the ballot, they shall not receive pledged delegates or delegate votes from New Hampshire.”
Democrats who serve on the panel hope that penalties for candidates who appear on the ballot in non-compliant states will dissuade candidates who are competing to win the Democratic nomination from future acts of defiance.
At an Oct. 6 meeting, RBC member Elaine Kamarck noted that their sanctions are “pretty weak, okay, let’s face it” and suggested New Hampshire Democrats never cared about having delegates at the national convention.
New Hampshire cares about having the first in the nation primary, she said. “The ultimate sanction is that the presidential candidates don’t go there. In other words. if you have a primary and nobody goes, you might as well have not had a primary.”
The national party’s plan to strip Democratic candidates who participate in any state that holds its contest too early in the nominating calendar did not keep longshot Biden competitor Marianne Williamson from putting her name on the New Hampshire ballot this year.
Two days before New Hampshire opened its filing deadline, however, former Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy changed his mind and said he would compete for the White House as an independent.
Some of Biden’s supporters from outside the state encouraged Democrats to switch their party affiliation to undeclared before an early October deadline so they could vote against Trump in the GOP primary. They are uniting with Republicans who are trying to defeat Trump at a conference this Saturday at New England College in Henniker.
New Hampshire’s Democratic Party is informally supporting the expected Biden write-in effort. It can not officially be involved in that campaign once it launches, which is where activists such as Demers and former New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Kathy Sullivan come in.
Sullivan said in an interview from the party headquarters that her goal is to generate enthusiasm for Biden until he can campaign in the state.
“A lot of people who are involved in politics in New Hampshire got involved because of presidential primaries,” she said. “And we’re losing a lot of that right now, because we don’t have the president here running for reelection. And so we don’t have new people coming in and saying hey, what can I do to help. And that’s unfortunate and that’s sad.”
Sullivan said she also hoped that a write-in effort would change negative attitudes toward the White House because Biden is not filing in the state. She said that she had heard from angry voters who asked why they should write Biden’s name down on the primary ballot after what he did to the state.
On a crisp fall day, as the GOP candidates were making a swing through the state to file to appear on New Hampshire’s primary ballot, Celestia Lensky, an independent voter who said has voted for Republicans and Democrats in the past, was walking her dog Peter in front of the state capitol.
She’s registered as an unaffiliated voter in New Hampshire, which allows her to take a Republican or a Democratic ballot. She has not decided who she will vote for in the 2024 presidential primary but she said: “I’m not writing in Biden’s name.”
“I’m not happy with the way the Democratic Party is trying to force New Hampshire to change their primary. I’m really not happy about that,” she said. “It’s the law here in New Hampshire that we are the first primary in the nation.”
Lensky noted that the state has a Republican governor and a Republican run-Senate. “And the Democratic Party’s threatening to sanction the Democrats, because we can’t change the law,” she said. “Why would I support the party during a primary because of that?”
Back at the state party headquarters, Matt Wilhelm, the New Hampshire House Democratic leader, said most Biden backers do not want to let the DNC dictate how they conduct their primary.
“I think by engaging in a write-in campaign, we show that we take our first nation primary really seriously, but also support the president,” he said. “We’re able to, I think, separate a squabble over the order of which, which primaries and caucuses are scheduled when, you know, with the accomplishments of the administration.”
New Hampshire’s plows ahead with first-in-the-nation contest
A University of New Hampshire poll, taken in coordination with CNN at the end of September, found that 78% of likely Democratic voters in New Hampshire plan to vote for Biden whether he appears on the primary ballot or not.
The polling has been reassuring to Buckley, the state party chair, that the write-in effort will succeed. Former President Barack Obama won the state with roughly as much support when he appeared on the ballot during his reelection bid in 2012.
Sitting in his office, with a cardboard cutout of Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris outside his door and pictures of the pair on the wall behind him, Buckley acknowledged that it was true that New Hampshire never cared about losing its delegates to the Democratic convention.
“I don’t know what possible sanctions they would have that would have an impact on anybody in New Hampshire,” he said.
South Carolina will hold its Democratic primary on Feb. 3. The party told Nevada and New Hampshire to have their primaries on Feb. 6. But the New Hampshire secretary of state, David Scanlan, says his state will go first regardless.
Scanlan said he would not announce the primary date until after the filing period closes on Oct. 27.
But he told USA TODAY as the filing period opened: “We will not be going on Feb. 6.”
Scanlan said there was “no chance” he would change his mind on holding New Hampshire’s primary first. He argued that the state was technically not out of compliance with the DNC’s rules because it had not formalized its expected January primary date.
He added, “I don’t know if that opens the door for President Biden to sign up for the New Hampshire primary or not but that’s his decision to make. And we will continue on our path, regardless of what that decision is.”
Biden ultimately decided against it.