How Joe Biden won a write-in campaign after skipping New Hampshire’s primary

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CONCORD, N.H. – It started with a few people, an idea and some signs.

A volunteer coalition called Granite State Write-In spent about $70,000 on stickers, signs and two staff members. A super PAC spent another $1.4 million on mailers targeting likely Democratic voters and digital and newspaper ads.

The goal: to deliver President Joe Biden a win in the New Hampshire primary even though his name wasn't on the ballot.

Biden had declined to appear on the ballot in New Hampshire because of a dispute with the state over the date of its contest. Democrats in the national party ordered New Hampshire, which is required by state law to hold the first-in-the-nation primary, to move its contest. At the president’s urging, the Democratic National Committee gave South Carolina – a state with a more diverse population − the honor of going first in this year’s presidential selection process.

The national party has pledged to sanction any state that holds its primary outside the official calendar and deny delegates to candidates who campaign there. The prohibition includes appearing on the ballot, prompting Biden supporters to launch an unofficial effort to get Democrats to write his name on the ballot.

Their efforts were not in vain. Moments after the polls closed in New Hampshire at 8 p.m. EST, news organizations called the race for Biden, delivering the president his first victory of the 2024 presidential competition.

A Biden victory in New Hampshire was not inevitable

Biden’s victory in New Hampshire was far from inevitable. Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips broke the DNC’s rules and filed to appear on the New Hampshire ballot. So did self-help author Marianne Williamson. Independents who may have otherwise voted for Biden threw their support behind Republican candidate and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.

The president has not set foot in New Hampshire since 2022, leaving some of his supporters angry and confused. As New Hampshire voters went to the polls Tuesday, Biden campaigned in Virginia.

In the days leading up to the primary, even some of the most enthusiastic supporters of the president were worried about the outcome.

They questioned whether a no-frills campaign that started only a few months ago − hashed out during a series of meandering Zoom meetings − would be enough to push a sitting president with low favorability ratings to victory in a state where his name wasn’t on the ballot.

It was.

Bonfires, house parties, and sign-waving events

A week before the primary, more than 300 volunteers hopped on a Zoom meeting to map out how they could rally Democrats across the state to vote for Biden in an unusual election year.

The patchwork of ideas that emerged from the frenzied call included bonfires, house parties and sign-waving events.

When Teach for America executive Noemi Wierwille, 44, volunteered to host one of the get-togethers at her home in Concord, she expected a small group of friends and acquaintances who had been at the core of arranging the events. Instead, dozens of local Biden supporters and a large group of reporters filled the hallways of her home. Rep. Ro Khanna was the star attraction.

Joe Biden signs in NH
Joe Biden signs in NH

“We're very proud of our politics in New Hampshire, and so anything that we can do to get Joe Biden reelected, we’re going to do it,” she said.

Concord organizer Sally Hatch, who was tasked with coordinating the group’s Election Day sign-holding schedule in the capital city’s 10 wards, acknowledged that winning would be difficult.

“It's really a big effort for us to be out there trying to influence the whole state,” Hatch, 75, said at the house party.

Primary day: 'A big relay race' for Biden volunteers

She described primary day as “a big relay race” for volunteers and said she worried other towns were not as organized.

In the lead-up to the primary, bundled-up volunteers stood at busy freeway intersections, local street corners and outside grocery stores in 10-degree weather, holding printed signs with detailed instructions on how to vote for the president in Tuesday's primary.

State Sen. David Watters huddled with other volunteers and Khanna on Sunday at a traffic circle in Dover. Watters represents the coastal towns in Strafford County and was among the original organizers of the write-in movement. He and a group of state party leaders started pulling together the initiative late last summer.

“New Hampshire people, of either party, really support this primary as a way of people having their voice,” said Watters, who has served in the state Senate since 2012. “No matter what the political bosses or the big money says, we get to vote.”

Many other Biden supporters expressed a similar sentiment. As annoyed as some were about the DNC primary calendar proposals, they said it was important for him to have a good showing.

“He’s been a very good president. That’s the bottom line,” New Hampshire State House Rep. Peter Schmidt, 85, said as he stood in the snow and held one of the white and blue write-in Biden signs at the traffic circle. “We need to keep him, especially when you consider the alternative being Donald Trump, who is a terrible person.”

Concerns about a 'fringe' candidate winning the election

New Hampshire Democratic leaders first began organizing the write-in campaign out of fear that a “fringe” candidate would beat Biden, potentially weakening his image and stirring broad unease about his reelection chances.

At the time, Robert F. Kennedy was running as a Democrat and clocking about 10% support.

Although his candidacy was always a long shot, were Kennedy to win the state’s primary, Kathy Sullivan, a former New Hampshire Democratic Party chair, said she believed “people would look at that and say, ‘Oh, there's a serious challenger here.’”

Kennedy announced in October that he would campaign as an independent candidate. But soon after, another competitor to Biden emerged: Phillips, the Minnesota congressman.

The moderate third-term lawmaker challenged Biden knowing he was unlikely to receive delegates in the state.

“It's to remind this entire country that what was done to all of you is one of the most egregious affronts to democracy I've ever known in my lifetime, initiated essentially by the president of the United States of America, who is the leader of the Democratic Party,” Phillips said Sunday at a campaign event in Hampton, New Hampshire.

Democratic presidential candidate Dean Phillips speaks at The Old Salt Restaurant in Hampton, NH, on Sunday, January 21, 2024, during preparations for The New Hampshire presidential primary.
Democratic presidential candidate Dean Phillips speaks at The Old Salt Restaurant in Hampton, NH, on Sunday, January 21, 2024, during preparations for The New Hampshire presidential primary.

Phillips’ message resonated with 58-year-old Michael Apfelberg, an independent who attended the lawmaker’s event at Old Salt Restaurant.

“We feel incredibly uncomfortable being told what to do, told our vote doesn’t count by the Democratic Party and being told that now, apparently, our vote does count, and we need to write in somebody’s name,” said Apfelberg, who works for the nonprofit United Way. “It just doesn’t sit well with us.”

The congressman’s campaign did not take off, even though he campaigned heavily in the state. Biden led him 61%-16% in an Emerson College/WHDH-TV poll conducted between Jan. 18 and Jan. 20. Williamson garnered 5% support in the survey, and another 16% of Democratic voters were undecided.

“We all should pay heed to what is driving him, which is that he knows that Joe Biden is not the right candidate to defeat Donald Trump in the fall and he believes he can do better,” said Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur who competed against Biden for the 2020 Democratic nomination.

Yang endorsed Biden after he dropped out in 2020. But he is backing Phillips for the presidency now. He campaigned for the Democratic lawmaker in New Hampshire over the weekend.

4 takeaways from New Hampshire: Donald Trump wins again, Nikki Haley vows to stay in

Whose fault is it anyway?

Khanna, a rising star in the Democratic party who campaigned for Biden in New Hampshire, said he believed voters would turn up for the write-in effort.

“Many of them are supporting the president because they believe he's the best person to lead the nation and lead the world, even though they may be upset about the DNC,” Khanna said. “That just speaks to the character of voters here in New Hampshire.”

The write-in campaign’s arguments proved persuasive for many voters. Biden easily defeated Phillips in the state, even with registered independents such as 79-year-old retired teacher Norine Calvano taking Republican ballots at their polling locations to help Haley.

“I thought that was a wasted vote,” Calvano said of the Biden write-in effort. “I think I know what the outcome is going to be.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Biden won a write-in campaign after skipping New Hampshire primary