© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute

How Trump and an Army of Volunteers Won New Hampshire for Joe Biden

The small campaign for the most powerful man on Earth.

Ashley Marcoux stands outside a polling site with a campaign sign supporting President Joe Biden as a write-in candidate.
Hoping to send a message for the general election, Democrats rallied behind President Joe Biden even though his name wasn’t on the ballot in New Hampshire. David Goldman/AP

SALEM, N.H. — President Joe Biden did not run in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. He won it anyway.

That was thanks, in large part, to an army of supporters like Dan Guild, who was up well before the sun rose to visit all five of Salem’s polling places. Fellow volunteers were in place at each one to encourage people to write in Biden’s name on a primary ballot where he was not listed and that will not be used to determine who becomes the eventual nominee.

“The question you’re most likely to get, and I believe it will come from a Republican, is why Biden isn’t on the ballot,” Guild told Norma Schuman, a volunteer who came up from Framingham, Massachusetts, and whom he spoke with during his five-minute stop at Mary A. Fisk Elementary School.

“The answer is that the DNC wanted to start the primaries in a diverse state,” Schuman responded.

“Ooh, I wouldn’t use ‘diverse,’ that almost sounds like ….” Guild paused momentarily. “I wouldn’t use ‘diverse.’ Not because it’s not true.”

“It was a scheduling disagreement,” Schuman suggested.

“Yes, how about a ‘scheduling snafu,’ or something along those lines,” Guild replied.

Then on to the next stop.

There were people like Guild all across New Hampshire towns large and small, wrangling volunteers to stand in the cold for hours at a time even though the primary is, in many ways, meaningless.

It’s a political anomaly, brought on by the state Democratic Party’s insistence that New Hampshire must remain the first primary in the nation and the Democratic National Committee’s insistence that the state party must instead relegate its long-held title. With only a few months’ preparation and a shoestring budget, the grassroots bunch of Democrats have desperately worked to get their party out to vote for the president of the United States.

“This election feels like you’re going to the most expensive opera in New York City, and all the lead cast got sick,” Guild said.


If the New Hampshire Democratic primary won’t lead to any delegates, why are Biden’s backers working so hard? It’s partially about the message. Sure, New Hampshire doesn’t officially have the first-in-the-nation primary on the Democratic side anymore, but the result will still be closely watched around the country, and these voters and volunteers want it to send the right message.

They want to show that New Hampshire voters care about democracy. They want to shift the narrative from a Donald Trump victory on the Republican side. And they don’t want Biden to lose to another Democratic candidate, including Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips, who has spent months bashing him.

“We just want to make sure Joe Biden doesn’t lose this first one because that would be a real embarrassment for him,” volunteer Dave Breault said in Salem on Saturday, outside the town dump.

“It’s important that New Hampshire has the voice, but more than that, it’s just important that Biden has momentum out of the blocks,” said volunteer Buz Kenney of Plymouth. “This is all just local citizens that want to support Joe Biden, and they want to do so in a quite public, meaningful way.”

Biden has not appeared in the state at all to campaign this election cycle. Instead, a few big-name political surrogates have stumped on his behalf. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) did six events in two days, along with countless interviews, the weekend before the primary. Khanna brought boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts to greet the crowds, even where there were often as many members of the press as there were volunteers. When Khanna spoke, Aaron Jacobs, one of two paid employees for the unofficial Biden write-in campaign, was just outside the camera shot, holding the doughnut boxes.

Jacobs, a campaign veteran going back to former President Barack Obama’s reelection, said the write-in push is the most grassroots operation he’s ever been a part of.

It started with a handful of state legislators in the fall, after the DNC announced that South Carolina, not New Hampshire, would hold the official first primary and in turn, the Biden campaign announced the president would not be on the ballot there even though the state insisted on staying first. By October, 100 Democratic activists banded together across the state. Now, there’s no way to tell for certain how many volunteers there are, Jacobs said.

Spontaneous write-in get-togethers cropped up in places across the state without Jacob’s awareness, like in Peterborough, a town of 6,000 people between Manchester and Keene.

“We didn’t have palm cards, so a woman in Claremont printed 1,000 copies of her own,” Jacobs said. “The QR codes you see on the signs, that was just like, some volunteer who designed that, and now those are on the signs on polling places across the state. [State Sen. David] Watters had a great line, like, ‘No one is gonna stop you from doing whatever you damn well please to show your support for the president.’”

Some write-in volunteers and voters said they were out to show support for Biden himself. But when asked why they were spending their time doing so, the most frequent response was they were scared for the future of U.S. democracy, and more than anything, scared of Trump.

“We want to make sure that there’s a story that’s coming out of the Democratic side on Tuesday night, not just, you know, [from] the MAGA folks,” said Matt Wilhelm, minority leader of the New Hampshire House of Representatives.

He was one of about 10 people standing on the side of the road in Dover in the frigid New Hampshire winter, holding a sign for Biden.

“The option in November may be democracy or dictatorship,” Wilhelm said. “I think it’s really important that New Hampshire, which has a great reputation for civic engagement and participation in our elections, that there are folks that are showing up to make sure the country knows that the president has a lot of support in a purple state like ours.”

“I’m doing it to protect democracy,” said Sue Mayer, who was also in Dover. “Joe Biden does believe in democracy. And Donald Trump does not.”

In Peterborough, a stream of cars, together with many appreciative honks, went past the sign holders as they stood outside for more than two hours. Not all the receptions were positive, though.

“We get a lot of peace signs, that’s for sure, but a lot of people who hate Joe Biden give us a peace sign with only one finger,” Kath Allen said. At a stop in Plymouth, one Trump supporter in a decked-out truck circled the town roundabout over and over again, honking and yelling at the write-in campaigners. However, they remained unfazed; with democracy on the line, one heckler was no big deal.

“We’re passionate about reelecting Joe Biden, and not reelecting Donald Trump,” Kenney said in Plymouth. “It’s mostly about saving democracy.”


For a Democratic primary, there was a lot of talk around Trump. But the volunteers behind the Biden write-in campaign also had to contend with the 21 Democratic names that were actually on the ballot. Phillips’ name loomed largest — and may have even boosted Biden by frustrating some Democratic voters.

The Minnesota representative put millions of dollars into his New Hampshire campaign, taking advantage of this year’s abnormality to build a groundswell of support. Despite that, Phillips failed. The Associated Press and other news outlets called the race for Biden soon after polls closed.

Jacobs, state lawmakers and other surrogates are all quick to point out the Biden write-in campaign launched long before Phillips entered the race. But having an opponent more serious than, say Vermin Supreme, was certainly a factor in getting out the vote.

“I mean, of course, you can’t overlook the fact that he’s dumping millions of dollars into this state,” Jacobs said, referring to Phillips’ campaign. “Write-ins are tough, and he’s spending a lot of money.”

The Biden supporters had a mixed response to Phillips — ranging from apathy to agitation.

“You don’t challenge our current president, when he’s done the job that he’s done, and you don’t go around reinforcing Republican arguments against him,” said Jim Verschueren, while wearing an outfit made of U.S. flags and holding another in his hand in Dover. To voters like him, uniting the Democrats for Biden is an important way to keep Trump out of the White House.

The decisive write-in victory proved that Biden still has support among New Hampshire Democrats. But the state — which Trump narrowly lost to Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Biden only won by seven points in 2020 — is not a deep-blue haven. And the decision for Biden to not campaign here meant that, in some ways, efforts to turn out voters for the general election are behind where they should be, despite the hard work of the write-in campaign volunteers.

Jacobs pointed out that the Biden campaign will have to move fast to regain ground in the state before November.

“We’ve done what we can to get people out for the primary, but what really is going to matter is that we’re able to get them out in November when we have more of an actual campaign apparatus,” Jacobs said. “We’re doing what we can, one voter at a time, one card at a time. But we’re gonna need a lot more than that when it comes to November.”

Katherine Swartz and Casey Murray are NOTUS reporters and Allbritton Journalism Institute fellows.