WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden just announced his re-election campaign, but he’s already on track to sacrifice New Hampshire’s famed primary to a fringe rival like Marianne Williamson or Robert Kennedy Jr.
The unusual situation is one of Biden’s own making, thanks to the new primary calendar the Democratic National Committee ratified at his behest in February, which seeks to demote Iowa and New Hampshire and prohibits candidates from campaigning — or even putting their name on the ballot — in a state that jumps the line.
The problem is that New Hampshire and Iowa, both of which Biden lost in 2020, plan to disregard the DNC and hold their contests first anyway, most likely forcing Biden to forfeit the first unofficial contests of 2024.
The rules apply to Williamson and Kennedy as well, but they've indicated they're willing to accept the DNC's unspecified penalties for rule violations since they're running anti-establishment campaigns anyway.
While those contests will most likely be inconsequential to the delegate math of Biden’s re-nomination, it may nonetheless be embarrassing for the president of the United States to nominally lose to Williamson, a self-help author who has never held elective office, or Kennedy, an anti-vaccine activist with a famous last name. They are the only other Democrats in the race at the moment.
While Biden's campaign would likely shrug off the outcome of contests it didn't even compete in, the situation could be nerve-wracking for ever-anxious Democrats and spark new questions about a bigger-name Democrat challenging Biden.
“We still intend to have a presidential primary that will be first in the nation,” said New Hampshire Secretary of State David Scanlan, who will set the state’s primary date. “Whether the president campaigns here or not is up to him. It’s up to him whether he’s going to place his name on the ballot or not. If he chooses not to place his name on the ballot, I’m sure there will be some New Hampshire Democratic voters who will write his name in.”
The new Democratic calendar moves up South Carolina, the state that revived Biden’s candidacy in 2020, and demoted Iowa, where Biden finished fourth, and New Hampshire, where he was fifth.
The party said that New Hampshire could share the second slot with Nevada, but the state balked, citing a law mandating that its primary take place a week before any other in the country.
A Biden campaign aide said advisers are aware that New Hampshire might jump the line and hope it does not, but are “prepared to abide by any sanctions the DNC would impose if that were to happen.”
Iowa, meanwhile, was jettisoned entirely from Democrats’ early primary window, but that was expected after the fiasco of its 2020 caucuses and the state trended more red. New Hampshire Democrats, on the other hand, were shocked and outraged by the snub, warning it will undermine the party in the critical general election swing state.
New Hampshire's largest union announced Tuesday that it is not endorsing Biden, saying, "New Hampshire voters deserve a competitive Democratic Primary."
The prospect of a relatively easy win in either state could be enticing to an ambitious Democrat and has been a factor in both Williamson and Kennedy’s campaign strategy.
“Your primary’s going to happen on schedule. So whether or not the president participates, this is where it’s going to happen,” Williamson said in New Hampshire last month.
Kennedy — whose family hails from neighboring Massachusetts — has repeatedly appealed to New Hampshire Democrats aggrieved by the snub, writing open letters and op-eds defending the state’s primary.
“The biggest risk here for Biden is if a more mainstream Democrat gets in or if there’s a write-in effort for one,” Neil Levesque, the director of the Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College, a traditional stop for every presidential candidate in the state. “I can’t mention names, but there are several big-name Democrats that I’ve either spoken to directly or I’ve spoken to their aides who are, I’ll say, waiting on the tarmac.”
New Hampshire's filing deadline for new candidates has historically stayed open late, leaving plenty of time for other candidates to jump in.
That’s a possibility that concerns some New Hampshire Democrats, most of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly on the sensitive topic, especially since the state has a history of casting protest votes against incumbent presidents.
In 1968, liberal Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy launched a last-minute long-shot challenge to embattled President Lyndon Johnson. His stronger-than-expected second-place finish in New Hampshire helped convince Robert Kennedy Sr. to enter into the race — and Johnson to exit it.
And even though they ran unopposed for the party's nomination, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama won only around 80 percent of the vote in the state's primary during their re-election campaigns.
“New Hampshire is fickle. Turnout will be low. Independents cross over,” said a Democratic strategist from New Hampshire. “Anybody who puts together a campaign, Marianne Williamson or Kennedy or whoever, probably starts around 20 percent if you don’t do anything. But if you willfully alienate the New Hampshire Democratic base? Then you probably start slipping.”
“The question is, do they care?” the strategist continued. “And the answer from the Biden people I’ve talked to seems to be, ‘no.'”
Some New Hampshire Democrats hope Biden will bless a write-in effort on his behalf — even if he might have to officially disavow it in order to stay in compliance with DNC rules.
“I suspect there will be a write-in effort for Biden or perhaps a straw candidate" who would act as a placeholder for Biden, said New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley.
But others think Biden has already entirely written off the primary in New Hampshire, where he won just 8.4% of the vote in 2020.
"Then they can say, ‘Well of course we didn’t win New Hampshire, we didn’t expect him to and no one expected him to, we didn’t even compete,’” said another New Hampshire Democrat with experience in the state’s primary.