This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.
Last December, President Joe Biden made clear he wanted South Carolina Democrats, the same voters who were crucial to him finding his footing in 2020, to launch the primary calendar in 2024.
Nine months later, New Hampshire Democrats are showing they love their first-in-the-nation status more than their President, who may wind up watching the New Hampshire primary as an observer without his name on the ballot. It is a quandary entirely of Biden’s own making—one that The D.C. Brief predicted back in early December.
More From TIME
As it stands now, New Hampshire is likely to vote on Jan. 23, well ahead of the Democratic National Committee’s plan of having South Carolina on Feb. 3 and New Hampshire and Nevada to go on Feb. 6. (The Granite State might even move the date even earlier, out of concerns Iowa might be changing their in-person caucus into something more resembling a primary by allowing mail-in ballots. Yes, New Hampshire is that persnickety about being first.)
Why does it matter if New Hampshire’s primary leapfrogs ahead and holds its starting position that dates to 1920? Because Biden pledged to only participate in primaries sanctioned by the national party. Anyone out of line would get his cold shoulder, and whoever won there would collect zero delegates. In fact, the rules package Biden prescribed penalizing candidates for even campaigning in scoundrel states. That means Biden wouldn’t even be able to file to have his name on a New Hampshire ballot if Democrats there refuse to allow South Carolina to hold its primary first.
Last week, the Democratic National Committee’s powerful Rules and Bylaws Committee punted once again rather than resolving this issue, giving the New Hampshire state party one more month to submit a plan for a primary date that trails South Carolina. The party insiders are demanding New Hampshire abandon its decades-long practice of kicking off the nominating calendar and change a 1975 law requiring the state’s presidential primary be scheduled a week ahead of any similar contest.
Republicans, who control the state legislature and the Governor’s Office in Concord, N.H., have no interest in helping Democrats by scraping the state law demanding a lead-off primary. The secretary of state—a position appointed by the legislature and one that is typically seen as above politics—has yet to officially schedule a primary date, even as the likely one is just four months away.
And New Hampshire Democrats aren’t exactly pulling their hair out over being out of compliance with their national comrades’ demands and seem utterly unwilling to budge. Neither will the Republican-controlled legislature nor Republican Gov. Chris Sununu. In a state where six-in-10 residents support the early pole spot, defending the primo primary posting no matter the fallout is just good politics. (Among Democrats, that level of support lags at 43%, although independents—the largest bloc of voters in the state at 38%—appreciate the privilege with 72% support.)
Democrats had hoped to have this long behind them by now. Initially, Democrats on the Rules and Bylaws Committee set a June 3 deadline for New Hampshire to fall into compliance. That clearly didn’t happen, and then the rules panel set Sept. 1 as the new deadline. Once again, plucky Granite Staters said no. Next up: an Oct. 14 deadline that may be the drop-dead chance to resolve this standoff.
National Democrats have nudged the state party to run their own, private and party-controlled primary as a sort-of off-ramp from this conflict between Columbia, S.C., and Concord, N.H. Democrats in New Hampshire have scoffed at that lift, which would cost an estimated $7 million—money that donors would have to pony up but do nothing to help Biden win the state’s four electoral votes next November. It has been a non-starter from the start, but that doesn’t mean nominal friends in other state capitals aren’t continuing the folly of a suggestion.
Some party insiders are contemplating a push for New Hampshire primary voters to write-in Biden’s name. The state party is keeping such efforts at an arm’s length while appreciating the box that Biden has built for himself. Any faux grassroots push may be actually worse than none at all, because it could feed into the notion that liberal elites had rigged the system against any challengers to Biden, a claim that ignores the fact that no incumbent President running for a second term has participated in a primary debate since Gerald Ford. Also, Biden could still lose in New Hampshire, even after a concerted write-in campaign.
If all of this seems like minutiae inside a small corner of the byzantine Democratic machinery, it simultaneously is and it is not. If New Hampshire Democrats hold an unsanctioned primary, they risk losing half of their delegates to the party’s nominating convention next summer in Chicago. Whoever wins there would get zero delegates, leaving some of the state’s most dedicated activists with blackballed credentials to the convention. All of this from a state where Biden’s early polling shows a tight race even before Republicans settle on a nominee. Lost on no one is this bit of trivia: had Al Gore carried in New Hampshire in 2000, the recount in Florida would not have mattered.
That said, Biden’s fealty to the national party’s rules could open the door for a discounted win from one of his rivals, such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. That’s the kind of outcome that is meaningless trivia until it’s not. In 1968, incumbent President Lyndon Baines Johnson narrowly survived a primary challenge from Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire. That showing of weakness prompted the elder RFK to enter the race, and LBJ bowed out less than three weeks later.
Now, RFK Jr. is no OG RFK, and the politics of 2024 are a long lob from those of 1968. Still, the New Hampshire electorate is not one that bows to Washington’s will or cares much if the head of their party is sitting in the White House already or not.
Which leaves Democrats—both at DNC HQ in Washington and at New Hampshire Democratic Party’s base in Concord—in a lurch. Most Democrats expect Biden to be the nominee and for New Hampshire to matter come November. The party cannot afford to risk depressed Democratic turnout, and an ignored primary and blocked delegation in Chicago could do just that. At the same time, Biden cannot reward the indifference to his role as party leader.
All of which is to say national Democrats would do well to realize Concord doesn’t care what they say; never has, never will. The first-in-the-nation primary is a birthright to this electorate, and no amount of threats or penalties will break New Hampshire Dems. But the standoff could have real consequences. Come next fall, Granite State Democrats may only pick up the party hymnal grudgingly, or not at all at a time when Biden will need them all in well-tuned harmony. For now, there’s plenty of dissonance, and it’s Biden’s rulebook that is prescribing the discord.
Correction, Sept. 18
The original version of this story misstated how New Hampshire’s secretary of state is appointed. The secretary of state is appointed by the state legislature, not the governor.
Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the D.C. Brief newsletter.