In a long black pea coat and loafers, California Rep. Ro Khanna looked the part of a New England politician.
“You know, I gotta get better boots,” he joked to a group packed into a Concord home Saturday.
The Fremont congressman and former Bernie Sanders presidential campaign co-chair had returned to the state where he once stumped for Sanders to support another candidate who’s not on Tuesday’s primary ballot — President Biden.
This year, the Democratic National Committee has pushed aside New Hampshire, which historically holds the first presidential primary in the nation, for South Carolina, the state that put Biden on the path to the nomination four years ago.
But Biden allies, including Khanna, are still hoping that write-in votes will allow the president to secure a strong showing in the state’s unofficial Democratic primary Tuesday.
“It’s all come together, huh?” Khanna said, surveying a gathering of roughly 50 people in the cheery yellow kitchen of a Concord home. “Pretty amazing turnout.”
Tables and chairs had been pushed against the walls to make room for the crowd. Outside, piles of “Write-in Joe Biden” signs lined the driveway.
Standing in the living room corner, flanked by a bookshelf covered in family photos and a table adorned with a framed local newspaper article, Khanna urged the audience to support the write-in effort.
“It’s a hard thing to win in a write-in campaign,” Khanna said. “The whole country is going to notice, as they always do in New Hampshire, and they’re gonna say this president has enthusiasm. This president’s economic visions are connecting. This president is inspiring the nation.”
But in a room packed with press, it was difficult to tell how many attendees were actually New Hampshire voters. And despite Khanna’s optimism, polls show that most Democrats are little enthused about the incumbent president. Biden’s approval rating is at 39.1% nationwide, according to the latest numbers from polling aggregator FiveThirtyEight.com.
In California, only half of voters have a favorable view of Biden, a poll last week by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, found. An October poll reported that a majority of Californians disapproved of the president.
Khanna refused to quantify what a “win” for Biden would look like on Tuesday. Instead of the absent president, the Democratic ticket in New Hampshire is packed with less well-known candidates, including author Marianne Williamson and Minnesota Congressman Dean Phillips.
“My hope is as the election draws nearer and nearer … people will recognize the stakes and get out there,” Khanna said.
The California congressman wasn’t the only far-flung Biden supporter in New Hampshire on Saturday. Zena Martin, a marketing consultant in Atlanta, flew up to New England on her own dime to help the write-in campaign. Simply voting is not enough, she said. She spent the last few days preparing for the weekend’s events and standing in the frigid cold with signs.
“From what I understand, I have come the furthest — but of course Ro Khanna has come further,” Martin said with a laugh.
As for Khanna, who took a selfie with her, Martin said his visit “shows that wherever we are, if you really care about saving our democracy, you’re going to do what you can.”
Chris Johnson and Megan DeVorsey clung to the edges of the busy kitchen scene, watching as Khanna made his rounds, taking pictures and shaking hands. As Concord residents for 23 years, they’re accustomed to the rhythm of politicians’ visits to the Granite State every four years — but they said it doesn’t get old.
“It’s energizing. It’s exciting,” said DeVorsey, her glasses fogging up from the humidity of the house. “I like coming to people’s houses … and meeting congressmen from across the country. I love it.”
“We tell ourselves retail politics in New Hampshire is a real thing,” added Johnson, who grew up in Hollywood. “I think it’s kind of a privilege — we get to see powerful political figures in small settings like this. It’s a little nutty, in a way.”
Both Johnson and DeVorsey plan to carry signs for the write-in campaign at polling sites on Tuesday. Many Granite State residents don’t even know writing in the president’s name is an option, DeVorsey pointed out.
With an incumbent president and all eyes on the Republican primary — not to mention the DNC’s snub — there’s little reason to expect strong voter turnout among Democrats in New Hampshire. But apathy is not the only opponent for the Biden write-in campaign; activists are lobbying for New Hampshire voters to pen “ceasefire” on the write-in line on the ballot, a direct complaint about Biden’s approach on the war between Israel and Hamas.
Although he was in New Hampshire to support Biden, Khanna’s own ambitions were not far beneath the surface. The Californian has worked for years to position himself as a national progressive leader, allying with other progressive politicians in D.C. and building name recognition with visits to key battleground states. He’s basically “the fifth member of our congressional delegation,” said Cinde Warmington, a gubernatorial candidate and one of New Hampshire’s executive councilors.
Khanna has taken other steps that often signal aspirations to national office. He has been author of two books about his vision for progressive politics in the digital age. He tucks details of his own background — the son of Indian immigrants, raised in Philadelphia, believing that America would become “this first cohesive multiracial democracy” — into his stump speech for Biden.
In his speech, Khanna playfully alluded to the possibility that he may one day run in New Hampshire himself.
“I was joking with someone, I’d much rather have Joe Biden as a name than Ro Khanna. He’s blessed with good luck,” he said to a roomful of laughter. “If you want to have a write-in candidacy, have a name that’s easy.”
A reporter asked whether he would ever run for president.
“Who knows!” Khanna said. “But right now I’m here to support President Biden.”
As the snow began to blow outside, Khanna emerged from the warm Concord home and boarded his vehicle to head to his next stop: another write-in campaign party an hour away in Portsmouth.