In the New Hampshire primary yesterday, a relatively unknown Democratic congressman from Minnesota gained nearly 20 percent of the vote. Dean Phillips, who is challenging Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination, was boosted by rich techies from Silicon Valley hoping to shake up the Democratic primary.
Biden wasn’t on the ballot in New Hampshire and hasn’t campaigned in the state. Due to a dispute with the Democratic National Committee about the scheduling of primary elections, the New Hampshire primary won’t award any delegates. The president still won the state by a landslide, gaining more than 50 percent of the vote, thanks to a successful write-in campaign. Despite the meager showing in New Hampshire, Phillips’ tech-adjacent supporters have long seen his campaign as a way to disrupt yet another arena: the election industrial complex. “There should be open primaries, there should be debates,” Matt Krisiloff, a former chief of staff to OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, tells WIRED. “Candidates should not be basically told, ‘Don’t you dare run, stay in line.’”
Inside Phillips’ New Hampshire campaign offices are “MISSING” posters featuring a picture of Joe Biden, back turned, walking to an empty field. In Phillips, his backers have found a competent politician who is willing to take on their pet policy proposals and suffer the wrath of the Democratic establishment. As welcome as a shocking upset victory would be, Krisiloff says he would be pleased if Phillips’ campaign results in a competitive Democratic primary. In December, Krisiloff launched a super PAC called We Deserve Better, which has raised nearly $4 million to support Phillips. The group has been focused on running digital ads in New Hampshire and Krisiloff says its ads have been watched in the state nearly 6 million times.
The online ads promote Phillips’ business acumen and criticize Biden’s border policy. Phillips’ chances of unseating Biden are slim, Krisiloff acknowledges, but Silicon Valley is a place where “people get excited about long-shot opportunities.” We Deserve Better launched a ChatGPT-powered chatbot dubbed “DeanBot” to promote his campaign, only for OpenAI to suspend the tool, citing its policy that bans its tools in political campaigns. Still, the tech world is buying in: Crypto billionaire Jed McCaleb and the son of the tech venture capitalist Vinod Khosla have given money to the PAC, The Washington Post reported. Krisiloff says that Altman isn’t involved in the PAC and hasn’t given any money, but Puck News reported that Altman invited Phillips to his home in November. And Phillips himself has called Altman “a source of great counsel, ideation, and perspective.”
Altman’s influence on Phillips is obvious. At a campaign event inside a classroom at the University of New Hampshire last week surrounded by about 50 supporters, Phillips boasted about how he’s going to be “the first AI president in American history.” Phillips, echoing Altman himself, says AI will be the “most transformational technology in human history.” At the event, Phillips was introduced by Andrew Yang, who ran for president in 2016 and eventually dropped out and became a Biden campaign surrogate. Yang, who has endorsed Phillips, highlighted Biden’s age as a reason why he shouldn’t be the nominee.