Democrats in New Hampshire are incensed and up against a deadline they have no intention of meeting.
The Democratic National Committee, at President Biden’s direction, is trying to yank New Hampshire’s coveted first-in-the-nation presidential primary and give it to more-diverse South Carolina instead, and it has issued an ultimatum: either fall in line with the party’s nominating calendar by Sept. 1 or face possible sanctions.
But members of New Hampshire’s Democratic establishment aren’t flinching. They say they have no choice but to vote first, since a decades-old state law demands that their primary be booked at least a week ahead of any similar contest. If that means holding a rogue Democratic primary, so be it. If that prompts DNC sanctions, oh well.
“I don’t care what they do,” said Kathy Sullivan, a former New Hampshire Democratic Party chair and DNC national committee member. “We’re going to have our primary, and the DNC will do what they do, but it’s not going to change what we’re doing here.”
That defiant spirit is shared by current state party leaders, and the state officials who actually run New Hampshire’s elections say they aren’t budging either. The state will hold Republican and Democratic primaries on the same day. So, unless the DNC relents, the standoff will leave Biden in a bit of a pickle.
The president is the one who nudged the DNC to move South Carolina from fourth to first in the party’s 2024 nominating calendar. He said that the Southern state’s Black electorate is a core Democratic constituency and that the reordered calendar would better reflect the racial diversity of the party and the nation. (It probably didn’t hurt that in 2020, South Carolina delivered Biden his first primary win after an embarrassing fifth place finish in New Hampshire.)
Biden would undercut his message if he competed as an official candidate in New Hampshire, which is one of the whitest states in the nation, so political observers say he’ll likely skip the contest. His absence from the ballot could lead to an awkward outcome for him and the party — that is, unless the voters whose election he snubbed come to his rescue with an overwhelming write-in campaign.
Among likely Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire, 70 percent said in July that Biden is their top pick, according to the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. Pollsters asked Biden’s supporters what they would do if his name didn’t appear on their ballot, and nearly two-thirds said they would write it in.
That has establishment Democrats in the state hoping and expecting that Biden will sail to victory in the January contest, even if he stays away.
“People are angry,” Sullivan said, “but what New Hampshire Democrats are also doing is separating out our anger from the fact that we think Joe Biden has been doing a good job as president.”
A write-in win for Biden would prevent the victory of a “fringe” candidate and show that New Hampshire voters are serious about their first-in-the-nation status, Sullivan said.
“The DNC created a mess, and New Hampshire Democrats are going to have to clean it up,” she added.
While most Democratic primary voters backed Biden in the July UNH poll, 10 percent said they would vote for Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental lawyer who capitalized on his famous family’s name to rise to prominence as a conspiracy theorist and crusader against vaccines. Another 4 percent supported author and spiritual leader Marianne Williamson.
The numbers were fairly similar in an Emerson College poll released this week: 65 percent of respondents said they plan to support Biden, 12 percent said they support Kennedy, and 4 percent support Williamson. Nineteen percent said they are undecided.
Andrew Smith, director of the UNH Survey Center, said Kennedy and Williamson — who have campaigned in New Hampshire and criticized Biden’s efforts to undermine its first-in-the-nation status — aren’t on viable paths to win the Democratic nomination, but they can still create headaches for the incumbent.
Dr. Tom Sherman, a former state senator who was the Democratic nominee for New Hampshire governor in 2022, said he’s backing Biden regardless, but hopes the president finds a way to recognize New Hampshire’s traditional role in the primary process.
“It’s our law that we have to go first,” he said. “We deserve to go first.”
That, of course, is at odds with the position taken by the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee. The committee called for South Carolina to vote on Feb. 3, followed by both New Hampshire and Nevada on Feb. 6. (Iowa’s caucuses, which have historically been held before the New Hampshire primary, were excluded entirely from the DNC’s 2024 early voting window.)
Committee member Maria Cardona of Washington, D.C., said she understands on an emotional level why Granite Staters are loath to surrender their spot at the front of the line.
“There is a lot of pride there. There’s a lot of history there,” she said. “But the history part is not enough to ignore the demographic changes that have occurred.”
Diverse communities need a stronger influence over the nominating process, so the DNC’s new calendar has been a long time coming, Cardona said. Besides, the new lineup honors New Hampshire’s tradition by keeping it in the early window, she said.
“Forty-six other states would kill for the position that New Hampshire is in right now,” she said.
Cardona said Biden will be the Democratic nominee no matter what happens in New Hampshire. She remains hopeful that the state party can find a way to abide by the DNC’s edicts without violating state law.
Ray Buckley, current chair of the state Democratic party, said he suspects New Hampshire’s unwillingness to go along with “the D.C. establishment” is what’s really driving the calendar conflict.
“New Hampshire voters have confounded the power brokers of Washington, and they’re frustrated,” he said.
Buckley said the national party took important steps ahead of the 2008 election to achieve a diverse and inclusive presidential nominating calendar. That’s when Nevada and South Carolina joined the early window, behind Iowa and New Hampshire. The four-state combo ensured representation of Latino and Black voters, union membership, and geographic diversity, he said.
“We believed it was working,” he added.
The state party agreed to some of the DNC’s 2024 demands, but others were “unrealistic and unattainable” since Democrats can’t tell the Republican governor and state lawmakers what to do, Buckley said. The state party can’t unilaterally change state law, he noted.
This election cycle will be the first time that New Hampshire Secretary of State David Scanlan, a Republican, is the one tasked with scheduling the primary at least a week ahead of any similar contest. His mentor and predecessor, William Gardner, a Democrat, retired in 2022 after 45 years.
Scanlan said he has a good idea of what to expect, since he spent years watching Gardner defend the state’s electoral tradition. There is no way New Hampshire will cave and comply with the DNC’s demands, he said.
A likely date for New Hampshire’s primary is Jan. 23. That’s eight days after the Iowa Republican caucuses (Iowa’s Democratic caucuses have not yet been scheduled). But New Hampshire’s date is not set in stone.
The penalties for defying the DNC could include New Hampshire losing recognition for delegates to the presidential nominating convention. That would upset the delegates themselves, but UNH’s Smith said it wouldn’t make a difference in who wins the nomination.
The race in New Hampshire is about momentum, not delegates, so the state’s primary will matter as long as candidates think it matters, Smith said. That will remain true regardless of whether it has the DNC’s blessing.
“It’s not as important as it used to be,” he said, “but it’s still the most important state in determining who the next nominee is going to be.”