Unconventional Politics: Dean Phillips Poses Surprise Threat to Write-in Joe Biden in New Hampshire

Did you hear that Andrew Yang, the ninth-place contestant in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries and fourth-place finisher in New York City’s 2021 mayoral primary, endorsed Rep. Dean Phillips (D–Minn.) for president in New Hampshire Thursday? Probably not, but here’s the quote anyway:

“Joe Biden has been an accomplished and substantial president. I endorsed him and voted for him in 2020 and was even a campaign surrogate,” Yang, the founder of the Forward Party, said in his prepared remarks. “[But] while he was the right candidate four years ago, he is not now….The president is 81. All of the things that a candidate must do to be successful—travel, project energy, rally, meet voters, conduct interviews, call surrogates—all of them will be more difficult with an older candidate whose team will be concerned about him stumbling, literally or figuratively, at every turn. The candidate matters! It will be hard to reinvent grandpa.”

Yowch!

The whole candidacy of Phillips, a three-term congressman from Minnesota and Talenti Gelato magnate who turns 55 Saturday, has been that Biden is too old and unpopular to prevent Donald Trump from retaking the White House. “I adore Joe Biden,” he said just before launching his campaign. He is more hawkishly supportive of Israel and gung-ho about using the U.S. military to free American hostages, he criticizes Biden’s handling of the southern border, and he has of late learned to love Medicare for All, but otherwise, his ideological and issue set is largely indistinguishable from the president’s.

On a national level, Phillips’s quest to dislodge the incumbent is more than a long shot—Biden is averaging 70 percent in the polls, compared to Marianne Williamson’s 7 percent and Phillips’s miserly 3. But Phillips is front-loading his challenge as an early-primary exercise, and New Hampshire is notoriously prickly toward incumbent presidents.

Harry Truman lost here in 1952 to Estes Kefauver and promptly withdrew from the race. Eugene McCarthy’s shocking 42 percent second-place finish against Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 would within the calendar month impel LBJ to drop out and Bobby Kennedy to jump in. Pat Buchanan’s 38 percent in 1992 rattled winner George Bush, arguably signaling his then-surprising weakness in the general election.

In the state’s sparse polling to date, Phillips sits in second place, at an average of 10 percent, with Biden at a still-daunting 58 percent. Am I saying there’s a chance? Well, the most recent survey has the race closer, at 49-16, but more importantly, there are four weird reasons why the stars may yet align.

1) Biden’s name isn’t even on the ballot Tuesday. The president and his lackeys at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) tried to strongarm New Hampshire into no longer holding the first-in-the-nation primary, and when the Granite State refused to budge, the crude rule-rewriting they imposed meant that the president was barred from officially campaigning there, unlike Phillips, Williamson, Vermin Supreme, and 20 other candidates.

The upshot is that New Hampshire Democrats are “pissed”—that’s according to the head of a Biden-supporting super PAC, mind you—and find themselves scrambling to convince insulted residents to write in the president’s name so that he can save face.

The DNC has pre-emptively declared the results “meaningless,” and won’t seat any delegates from the voting. Former state Democratic Party chair Ray Buckley countered in a fun NBC News story that, “It’s safe to say in New Hampshire, the DNC is less popular than the New York Yankees.”

All in all, fertile ground for disgruntled voters to deliver an outsized protest vote!

2) There are a YUGE number of undecideds. In the Jan. 8-10 WHDH TV/Emerson poll (where the percentage-point spread among the three candidates was 49-16-5), 3 percent of respondents fell into the category of “other,” and a whopping 27 percent were still undecided. That is highly unusual in the run-up to a primary, but has been the norm in this race: A Dec. 18-19 St. Anselm poll, for example, found 29 percent of Democratic New Hampshire voters “unsure,” compared to just 3 percent of Republicans.

And those polls cannot capture one of the most idiosyncratic dynamics of New Hampshire, which is that A) there are more undeclared voters (343,300) than either Republicans (268,000) or Democrats (262,000), and B) they can decide at the polling booth which party’s primary they’d like to crash.

It is true that last-minute deciders could break for the boring old guy who insulted their state and is nowhere to be found on local airwaves or at pancake breakfasts. But does that really sound like New Hampshire?

3) The most committed anti-Trumpers might choose to vote in the Republican primary instead. “Approximately 3,500 Democrats in the state switched their party registration to become undeclared voters, or independents, ahead of the October [registration] deadline,” Fox News reported this week. “Part of that effort was led by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who recently dropped out of the race, encouraging voters to take every opportunity to turn out against Trump.”

That is not a huge number, sure, but it speaks to a dynamic that might move particularly many of the aforementioned undeclared voters: If you are a New Hampshirean motivated by a strong desire to avoid another Trump presidency, where do you get the most bang for your buck? Voting for Nikki Haley in the GOP primary.

Biden, whose whole 2020 selling proposition was that only he in the Democrats’ crowded field was normie enough to take on the Bad Orange Man, can no longer count on that constituency, at least while the Republican race is still contested, and easily infiltrated by otherwise reliably Democratic voters.

4) The 2024 presidential election just has too much weird anti-rematch energy to NOT get expressed at some point. Joe Biden’s approval rating, Gallup noted last month, is “worse than other modern presidents at [the] same point.” The polling gap between Americans describing themselves as “dissatisfied” and “satisfied” has been wider than 50 percentage points since August 2021. Independent Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., is polling higher than any nontraditional presidential candidate since Ross Perot. No Labels (whose congressional Problem-Solving Caucus Dean Phillips was a co-founder of) is cracking its knuckles on the sidelines.

Would I place a sizeable 50-50 bet on Dean Phillips winning in New Hampshire, or even coming with 10 percentage points of Joe Biden? Oh, hell no. But as a fan of political competition, and proud member of the anti-rematch majority, I’m admittedly desperate to see any green shoots poking up through the political desolation.

Or as Andrew Yang said, “To journalists and influencers, wouldn’t you rather cover a real primary process rather than slump into the battle of the 80-year olds? Dean’s victory could be one of the greatest stories of this era.”