U.S Election

What's at stake for Biden in New Hampshire: Avoiding embarrassment

user avatar Author: Dave Dave Source: CBC News:
January 23, 2024 at 07:43
Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters
Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

Primaries are usually a slam dunk for a sitting president. But Biden isn't even on the ballot

While Republicans have drawn more attention in this 2024 U.S. presidential primary season, some Democrats will be nervously watching Tuesday's results in New Hampshire.

Especially President Joe Biden.

Biden faces an early enthusiasm test, in a year where few Democrats were enthused about him running, and where victory in November will hinge on turnout.

Now a three-term congressman is hoping to upstage the president, through a renegade campaign based on his argument that the party needs a Biden backup.

If Dean Phillips of Minnesota pulls off an upset Tuesday in New Hampshire, he says: "It's a whole new race. And a whole new day."

Man in shirtsleeves and tie speaking on stage, surrounded by people and signs that say 'Dean'
Congressman Dean Phillips of Minnesota, seen here Saturday in Nashua, N.H., is launching a Democratic nomination challenge against Biden. Tuesday's New Hampshire primary will be an early test of whether it has any momentum. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

The polls show no evidence of an imminent upset, but it's a weird year: Biden is not actually on the ballot in New Hampshire, amid a fight between the Democratic National Committee and the state over plans to strip it of its first-in-the-nation primary status.

So Biden allies have launched a campaign to stave off the embarrassment of defeat, even if this primary is not officially sanctioned by the national party and won't mean delegates for the winner.

The mayor of Boston, a U.S. senator, a congressman, and an allied group are urging Democrats to write Biden's name onto the ballot so he starts the election with a win.

Biden's challenger, who is on the ballot, is mocking him in an ad featuring a sasquatch. In it, the fabled beast pretends to look for the invisible president, who has avoided campaigning in New Hampshire. The ad ends with the tagline: "Why write [Biden] in, when he's written us off?"

Donald Trump made clear he's rooting for a Biden humiliation on Tuesday. At a campaign rally, the former president alluded to Phillips, albeit not by name.

"Nobody ever heard of this guy," Trump said. "He might beat Biden. Wouldn't that be nice?"

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'He should have passed the torch,' says challenger

The guy in question, Phillips, was born on a presidential inauguration day, Jan. 20, 1969, and he lost his father as an infant, months later, in the Vietnam War.

He grew up to become an alcohol- and ice cream-company owner and says he chose to run for Congress after Trump won the 2016 election.

His voting record is slightly more right-leaning than most Democrats in Congress. But he's hard to pigeonhole: His 2024 platform also includes progressive, Bernie Sanders-style policies like universal Medicare and free college tuition, and Sanders' former top aide is advising him.

Man on stage surrounded by dozens of people and posters that say 'Dean' and a US flag illuminated in a window frame
Phillips drew about 100 people to an event in Nashua, N.H., on Saturday, as he campaigned across the state. Biden is not campaigning in New Hampshire. (Alex Panetta/CBC)

The slogan Medicare For All was printed on posters surrounding the stage at an event Saturday where Phillips spoke to over 100 people in Nashua, N.H.

He's made no secret of his annoyance that he's had much more coverage from Fox News than from networks more popular with Democrats, like MSNBC; he's complaining of being blackballed.

At his rally, Phillips accused elected politicians of lying about their leaders. 

He said Republicans privately describe Trump as a menace, then flatter him in public. He said Democrats do a version of this with Biden: Lamenting that he's lost a step, and is likely to lose this election, but not having courage to say so in public.

"We all know Joe Biden's a good man. I respect him, but he should have passed the torch," Phillips said. 

"He should not be running again. … He's in decline. … We see the polls – they're horrifying. Battleground polls are horrible. He's going to lose. His approval numbers – historically low. You cannot recover from those and win another election."

Most Democrats tell pollsters they believe Biden can, in fact, win; according to a YouGov survey for The Economist, 73 per cent foresee a Biden victory in November, which runs against the view of Independents who predict a Trump victory.

A marker in front of an older stone building describes New Hampshire's history as first-in-the-nation U.S. presidential primary.
A historical marker at the New Hampshire legislature. This election, Biden and the Democrats wanted South Carolina to go first, but New Hampshire has guarded its first-in-the-nation primary status. Democrats aren't sanctioning the event, won't award delegates to the winner, and Biden isn't on the ballot. (Holly Ramer/The Associated Press)

New Hampshire voters weigh in

But many are nervous.

"I'm trying to be an optimist but I'm not feeling really optimistic right now, to tell you the truth," said Kerri Harrington, a Democrat in Littleton, N.H. 

"If it comes down to Biden versus Trump, it's gonna be a really hard race to win."

At the Phillips rally in Nashua, local resident Anne Morris said she'd back Biden against Trump, referring to the last president as a "criminal" who has no business being in the White House.

But she's desperate for an alternative to Biden. She hopes her state sends the message Tuesday that there are options.

"I don't feel good about [Biden]," she said, calling the country worse-off under Biden's leadership.

"I don't approve of what he's doing, and I don't approve of his age. We need somebody younger. Someone with new ideas." 

Woman in glasses and T shirt that says Dean.
Anne Morris of Nashua, N.H., said she wants a new generation leading her Democratic Party and supports Dean Phillips. She's not a Biden fan, but would vote for him against Trump. (Alex Panetta/CBC)

Not everyone will vote if it's Biden versus Trump.

Sebastian Blackwood, a college student, said he's disillusioned by the leading candidates. He leans libertarian, and said he's hoping for someone else to win a nomination, either Phillips on the Democratic side or Nikki Haley for the Republicans.

"I can't stand most of the people running," he said at the Phillips event.  

"I'm not a big fan of choosing between the lesser of two evils. If you're going to make me choose between the evils, I'm just not going to choose." 

Profile shot of young man with long hair.
Sebastian Blackwood, a college student in New Hampshire, said if it comes down to Biden against Trump, he's not voting. He attended a Phillips rally, and said he'd also be okay with Nikki Haley as president. (Alex Panetta/CBC)


Middle East cracking the Dem coalition

One of the biggest challenges for Democrats is a lack of enthusiasm among young voters and it's gotten worse since the Israel-Hamas war erupted Oct. 7.

That disenchantment over Gaza has prompted a parallel push in New Hampshire — some progressives want primary voters to write a word into the ballot, instead of a candidate name: "Ceasefire." 

Woman gives man birthday cake as he's on a stage
Phillips's family gave him a birthday cake at his event in Nashua, N.H., on Saturday. He was born in 1969 on Jan. 20, presidential inauguration day. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Young progressives, in particular, have more pro-Palestinian views than their elders and many blame Democrats for doing too little to prevent Palestinian civilian deaths.

It's not clear Phillips can do anything to change that. 

The same issue cracking the Democratic coalition was apparent at Phillips's own rally. A heckler and another speaker challenged him on Mideast policy; they asked why he hasn't demanded a ceasefire or called the Israeli bombing campaign a war crime.

Phillips replied that he can hold several views at once: That Oct. 7 was "sickening," that the deaths of tens of thousands of Palestinians is also "sickening," that the Netanyahu government is part of the problem, and that Palestinians need a state.

That policy sounds a lot like Biden's.

Which raises a question repeated by a number of Democrats, and in some of the mocking coverage on MSNBC: Why is Phillips running?

Carter at podium, left, shakes hands with Kennedy
Presidents who face serious primary challenges generally lose re-election. Here's one example: Jimmy Carter, left, seen shaking hands with Sen. Ted Kennedy at the 1980 Democratic convention, after Carter beat back an effort by Kennedy. Carter won the nomination, but lost the election months later. (AP)


What happened in past primary challenges against presidents

One thing lacking in this challenge to a sitting president is a clear ideological reason, said Christopher Galdieri, a political-science professor in New Hampshire. 

It's not like Eugene McCarthy challenging Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam in 1968, he said, or Ronald Reagan opposing Gerald Ford in 1976 over conservative ideals, as Pat Buchanan also did with George H.W. Bush in 1992.

He doubts this challenge to Biden will gather as much momentum as those efforts or Ted Kennedy's push to oust Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Here's another thing those four past challenges to sitting presidents have in common: none of those sitting presidents was re-elected. Three lost, and Johnson withdrew from the race. 

Primary challenges can be debilitating to an incumbent. So Galdieri will be watching the numbers Tuesday for any hint of that. 

"[I'm looking to see]: What's the margin? Is Biden able to put this away?" Galdieri told CBC News. "The question is, can Biden win by enough that people stop talking about it, essentially."

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