(Reuters) - President Joe Biden's name will not be on New Hampshire's primary ballot, but top Democrats are organizing a shoe-string, write-in campaign aimed at preventing an embarrassing loss for the president that might fuel concerns about his 2024 election prospects.
Thousands of voters have already committed to the effort along with county and local party chairs, said California Congressman Ro Khanna, who will lead a call with organizers on Thursday evening on the effort.
For an incumbent president, primary races -- the state-by-state competitions that nominate a political party's official presidential candidate -- are normally a perfunctory affair.
But Biden's decision to sit out New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary on Jan. 23 and ongoing concerns about his general election prospects have attracted intra-party rivals for the White House like Minnesota congressman Dean Phillips.
Phillips and others hope to use New Hampshire as a way to transform their long-shot bids into credible candidacies - a strategy that has some historical precedent.
Pro-Biden Democrats' volunteer-focused effort, with just a $100,000 budget, will encourage primary voters to put Biden's name on the New Hampshire ballot. The plan includes putting a volunteer to explain the process at each of New Hampshire's over-300 polling stations, and distributing pamphlets and printouts.
"It speaks to the loyalty that so many people have in New Hampshire for the Democratic Party and the President," Khanna said in an interview.
New Hampshire represents the first test of voter enthusiasm for a president battered by a series of polls that show his multi-racial and multi-generational coalition fraying, and its success or failure will be closely watched.
"This write-in campaign is not quite an insurance policy, but it's definitely a rearguard action to fight against 'What if Biden doesn't win the New Hampshire primary' and what that would signal to the press and to the rest of the political world," said Andrew Smith, a political science professor at The University of New Hampshire.
Lyndon B. Johnson, then the Democratic incumbent, shunned the New Hampshire primary in 1968 due to over-confidence, only to see an insurgent campaign from Minnesota, U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy and his anti-Vietnam platform. Johnson supporters mounted a barely successful write-campaign, but a weakened Johnson dropped out of the race weeks later.
The primary will also offer the state's Democratic voters their first chance to protest Biden's decision to replace New Hampshire at the top of the party's primary calendar with South Carolina.
At about 90% non-Hispanic white, versus less than 60% in the rest of the country, New Hampshire is no longer considered a good predictor of Democratic presidential success. But New Hampshire officials refused to change the state's primary date; as a result, the Democratic winner will not amass any delegates needed to win the nomination.
Biden is not expected to campaign in the state ahead of the primary and his rivals - Phillips and self-help guru Marianne Williamson - are seizing on his absence.
Phillips is kicking off a 10-day tour of New Hampshire on Friday that includes traditional stops at diners and college campuses and fundraisers in private homes.
Pass the Torch, a super PAC supporting Phillips is running ads in New Hampshire critical of Biden, including one titled 'Trump is Winning' and another that compares Biden’s campaign to a burning dynamite fuse.