The New Hampshire primary is the best-known political ritual in New England — a quadrennial source of intrigue and drama in which a few hundred thousand Granite State voters play an outsized role in setting the national political agenda.
But with the 2024 primary less than a week away, close primary observers say that, this particular election cycle, the excitement that usually accompanies the event has been in short supply.
“Everyone is really bored,” Chris Galdieri, a political scientist and New Hampshire primary expert at Saint Anselm College, told GBH News recently.
Another primary expert, Dante Scala of the University of New Hampshire, struck a similarly downbeat note.
“It’s one of the most boring primary cycles I’ve seen, and I’ve been here since 2000,” Scala said.
There are a couple possible explanations for this muted atmosphere. First, New Hampshire primaries tend to be exciting when they’re wide-open affairs packed with plenty of uncertainty. Case in point: the 2008 cycle, when Hillary Clinton topped Barack Obama and John Edwards on the Democratic side and John McCain beat Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee in the Republican contest.
In this cycle, though, the exact opposite dynamic exists. Joe Biden is already president — and Donald Trump, who already was president, has been the overwhelming favorite to become the Republican nominee once again for years rather than months.
In other words, Scala argues, it’s basically like two incumbents are running simultaneously.
“That could readily explain the doldrums we’re experiencing,” he said.
In addition to this double-incumbent effect, the 2024 Democratic primary also features a bizarre vacuum. Back in 2022, Biden proposed a plan to shake up the Democrats’ nominating schedule by giving South Carolina the first primary, followed soon after by New Hampshire and Nevada. The plan was backed by the Democratic National Committee, which touted South Carolina’s greater demographic diversity as a reason to make the change. (In addition to having a large Black population, South Carolina also gave Biden a crucial win in the 2020 primary cycle after he’d finished dead last in the Granite State.)
But New Hampshire — which has its first-in-the-nation status codified in state law — ignored the wishes of Biden et al. and proceeded to schedule its primary first anyway. Biden, in turn, has responded by acting like New Hampshire’s contest doesn’t even exist. Not only has he refrained from campaigning in the state, he didn’t put his name on the ballot.
If Biden were actually participating, it might not up the excitement factor all that much, since his best-known opponents, Minnesota U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips and self-help celebrity Marianne Williamson, have been struggling to make the contest competitive. But it would have given the Democratic contest a bit of luster and gravitas that it currently lacks. (Because the primary is being held in violation of Democratic National Committee rules, no delegates are at stake.)
At the same time, Biden’s non-participation also creates an interesting subplot to track between now and next Tuesday. While he’s not actively running in the state, Biden supporters have marshaled a campaign of their own: they’re trying to get as many Democratic primary voters as possible to write him in on the ballot on Jan. 23 — thereby avoiding an embarrassing outcome in which, for example, a sitting president gets less than a majority of the vote.
The Write-In Joe Biden effort is based in New Hampshire, but it’s also getting a boost from Massachusetts, where Gov. Maura Healey and others have been working to drum up support for Biden’s pseudo-candidacy. One of the organizers of those efforts, Democratic political consultant Joe Caiazzo, insists there’s plenty of support for Biden in New Hampshire despite his attempt to downgrade the state’s political role. In a recent memo, Caiazzo wrote that, when pollsters actually name Biden as an option along with Phillips and Williamson, his projected vote tally ranges from 50 to nearly 70%, though it's lower if Biden isn't offered as a choice.
But other observers are more skeptical.
"A lot of Democrats are saying, 'What's the point, since the [Democratic National Committee] doesn't even recognize what we'll write in?'" said Arnie Arnesen, a former state representative and Democratic nominee for governor who hosts the radio show “The Attitude” on WNHN 94.7 FM.
Galdieri, the Saint Anselm political scientist, argues that Caiazzo and his write-in allies are actually making a pretty big ask of voters.
“They’re sending out these incredibly detailed mailers — you know, ‘You have to go all the way to the bottom of the ballot and fill in the circle next to ‘Write in,’ and then write in Joe Biden,’" Galdieri said. "And that’s just asking a lot of work of people.”
Given this, Galdieri said, winning 60% of the vote would represent a triumph for Biden’s absent campaign. But a weak showing — say, with Biden finishing in the forties and one of his challengers finishing with an unexpectedly strong result — could prompt negative commentary that lingers for days or weeks.
“If it’s a single-digit thing, or even a low double-digit win for Biden, I think there are a lot of folks who will take that, if not as a sign that he should get out, [then] as a sign to panic …. in part because there’s not going to be that much else to talk about, unless Nikki Haley does really well in New Hampshire,” Galdieri said.
The latter scenario, it’s worth noting, looks a bit more likely right now than it did just a few days ago. On Wednesday, a new poll from the American Research Group showed Haley running neck and neck with Trump, with each candidate garnering support from 40% of likely Republican primary voters.
That survey may be an outlier. Another new poll, from Suffolk University, paints a very different picture of the race, with Haley trailing Trump by 14 points.
Scala, the University of New Hampshire political scientist, said that if Haley can get people anticipating a Trump loss when the polls close on Election Day — even for a few hours — it could raise doubts about his inevitability and fundamentally shift the narrative around the contest.
“If, at 8:01 p.m. on January 23, the [TV] anchor says the exit polls show the race is too close to call, I think it’ll send a shock through the assembled national media in Manchester,” Scala said. “It’ll take that, rather than losing by 10 or 15%, to signify something for Haley … She needs one of those nights when everyone resets their ideas of what’s possible.”
Meanwhile, this entire election cycle has accomplished a similar reset when it comes to the New Hampshire primary itself. The Democratic National Committee’s plans for the 2028 cycle have yet to take shape. But by keeping his distance despite the potential negative consequences, Biden has shown that it's possible to simply ignore the primary if your position is strong enough. That sets a precedent other Democrats could follow in the future, and it just might pave the way for the primary's evolution into an exercise still important to Republicans but of marginal significance to the other side of the aisle.
Arnesen, the former state representative and talk-show host, said she’s afraid the standoff between New Hampshire and national Democrats will mark a turning point for the worse, after casting a pall that's been hard to lift.
“This has been the most depressing, saddest primary I have ever experienced,” Arnesen said. “There is no passion … Not only do I feel disengaged, but I feel like everyone in New Hampshire is disengaged.”