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The New Hampshire primary is a little unusual for Democrats this year

Stanley Piper talks with Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton, N.H. on Dec. 8, 2023.
Tamara Keith
/
NPR
Stanley Piper talks with Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton, N.H. on Dec. 8, 2023.

Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., was heading for the elevator. He'd spent an hour at the New Hampshire Veterans Home last week, trying to convince the elderly residents that it's time for a new generation of leadership for the Democratic party – a mantle that he has taken upon himself in a long-shot bid for the presidency.

Most of the people he had met at this campaign stop appeared to be learning of his existence for the first time – until Winston McCarty stopped him on the way out.

"Congratulations for giving the people another choice," McCarty said. Phillips lit up, asking the man for a hug before asking for his vote. "You made my day," Phillips said.

Such is the campaign trail existence of a candidate challenging an incumbent president from within his own party. Phillips is staking his campaign on a good showing in New Hampshire, which is only remotely possible due to an unusual situation with the Democratic primary ballot: President Biden's name won't be on it.

Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., speaks at a campaign town hall meeting in Exeter, N.H. on Dec. 8, 2023.
Brian Snyder / Reuters
/
Reuters
Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., speaks at a campaign town hall meeting in Exeter, N.H. on Dec. 8, 2023.

Biden isn't on the New Hampshire ballot because of a dispute over primary rules

Biden and the Democratic National Committee chose South Carolina to go first in the nominating process in 2024, breaking with tradition. But New Hampshire has a law requiring it to go first, so its primary is going ahead on Jan. 23. As a result of the dispute, the state's delegates won't be seated at the Democratic convention next summer and anyone who puts their name on the New Hampshire ballot could face sanctions from the national party.

Sticking with the party line, Biden didn't register to run in the state. But there are 21 candidates who will appear on the Democratic primary ballot next month, including self-help guru Marianne Williamson, who also ran in 2020.

Phillips is the only elected Democrat on the list. A congressman from Minnesota elected in 2018, he is the former chairman of Talenti Gelato and is one of the wealthier members of Congress.

He had initially advocated for better-known Democrats to challenge Biden but none did, so he jumped into the race.

"And sure enough, my campaign has torpedoed my career in Congress," Phillips said during a stop at the RiverWoods retirement community in Exeter, N.H. Drawing a primary challenge, he opted not to run for reelection.

Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., speaks to residents at the RiverWoods retirement community in Exeter, N.H. on Dec. 8, 2023.
Tamara Keith / NPR
/
NPR
Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., speaks to residents at the RiverWoods retirement community in Exeter, N.H. on Dec. 8, 2023.

Phillips doesn't break with Biden on policy. He's concerned about Biden's age

Before Phillips arrived at the Exeter campaign event, staff removed empty seats from a large auditorium and stacked them along the walls. A few dozen Phillips-curious residents gathered to hear his stump speech, including Fay Baker, who said she is an independent voter.

"It's a new face," Baker explained. "I want to hear what he has to say." However, she added, she is pretty satisfied with Biden.

Phillips didn't really hit Biden on policy. As the White House points out, in Congress he has voted with the president 100% of the time. His issue is with Biden's age and dismal poll numbers.

"Voters want choices, especially in a year like this where the risk of losing to Donald Trump is a huge concern to many of us and I think the future of our country," Phillips said.

In an interview with NPR, Phillips went so far as to say that he thinks Biden should drop out if – by May or June – polls show him trailing Trump.

"I don't know why you would run if you are the one who is going lose, and ruin your whole legacy against the most dangerous man in the world," Phillips said.

But how does Phillips go from being a congressman few people have heard of to the right person to replace the incumbent president as the Democratic nominee? It all starts with the New Hampshire primary, he said.

"My contention is on Jan. 24, that morning after, I think the headlines are going to say, 'Wow, wow, wow,'" said Phillips. "'Wow, wow – things changed a little last night, and we've got a race.'"

Campaign merchandise for Rep. Dean Phillips' campaign at a town hall event at the RiverWoods retirement community in Exeter, N.H. on Dec. 8, 2023.
Tamara Keith / NPR
/
NPR
Campaign merchandise for Rep. Dean Phillips' campaign at a town hall event at the RiverWoods retirement community in Exeter, N.H. on Dec. 8, 2023.

There's a push to write in Biden's name on the ballot

The state's Democratic establishment is now rallying to make sure Biden isn't embarrassed on primary day. They want voters to skip past Phillips and the other names they see on the ballot and write in Biden's name.

"You know what's the story going to be on the Democratic side? It needs to be that Joe Biden won this unconventional Democratic primary as a write-in candidate and is on his way to a second term," said Matt Wilhelm, the party's leader in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.

More than a thousand volunteers have signed up to get the word out to their friends and neighbors. Wilhelm plans to stand outside of a Manchester, N.H. polling place on primary day with a sign encouraging people to write in Biden.

"What I don't want to see is the Biden-Harris administration penalized for some misguided DNC rules when, at the end of the day, Granite State voters overwhelmingly support the president," he said.

The Biden campaign itself is steering clear of all of this. A write-in campaign is unpredictable. If expectations are too high for Biden heading in, coming up short in the primary results could turn into the morning-after headline.

Even though the state's traditional first-in-the-nation status was snubbed by Biden and the national party, there's a surprising amount of drive behind the write-in campaign. So far, organizers have printed 500 signs and they are raising money to make more.

On a recent Wednesday evening, state Sen. David Watters talked about the effort with a group of Strafford County Democrats over Zoom.

He asked them to volunteer their time and said they were hoping to have people hold signs at polling places, hand out "palm cards" explaining the process, write letters to the editors of local papers, and just talk to their friends.

Without the president on the ballot and with no delegates on the line, many Democrats might assume there is no reason to show up on Jan 23. So, Watters said people first need to be convinced to vote – and then to write in Biden.

At one point someone piped in to suggest handing out literature with a list of the president's accomplishments.

"Nothin's gonna hold anybody back on this Zoom from going out and doing whatever they damn please to support Joe Biden, so I think that's a great idea and you know how to do it and everybody does," said Watters, driving home the grassroots nature of the effort.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., talks to residents at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton, N.H. on December 8, 2023.
Tamara Keith / NPR
/
NPR
Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., talks to residents at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton, N.H. on December 8, 2023.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.

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