Implications of Democrats’ Proposed Early State Scramble

The Democrats are finally changing their primary calendar… maybe.

Although the Republican Party, being the good conservatives they are, will continue with the traditional early primary states, the Democratic National Committee is looking to shift things around. For years there had been momentum behind removing Iowa and New Hampshire as Democrats’ first caucus and primary. A party that relies so heavily on minority voters has had a hard time justifying why two of the nation’s seven whitest states have so much sway over the nomination process. The thinking was that promoting other states to the front of the line would address that concern. And yet, that kind of talk had been happening for several cycles without any actual change. It took the Iowa fiasco of 2020, with its frustrating delays and complex reporting of results — to perhaps finally dethrone Iowa as Democrats’ first-in-the-nation contest.

So what new calendar will replace the old one? If President Biden and the DNC had their druthers, here’s what it’d look like:

  • February 3, 2024: South Carolina
  • February 6: New Hampshire and Nevada
  • February 13: Georgia
  • February 27: Michigan

These states would presumably be followed by Super Tuesday on March 5, when any state would be allowed to hold its primary. (A typical Super Tuesday has 10 to 15 contests.)

Whether or not this calendar is adopted by the state officials who actually schedule elections is a different question, but let’s, for the moment, assume that it is. What are the big takeaways?

  • Iowa is gone! That hurts Midwest candidates hoping to get an early bump to fuel their campaign bus. Last time around, that would have hurt candidates like Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar and (formerly) Indiana’s Pete Buttigieg. It also hurts Democrats’ chances of nominating someone that could appeal to the Midwest.
  • The other early states remain, just in a different order. (In the old Democratic calendar, New Hampshire was 2nd, Nevada 3rd, and South Carolina 4th.)
  • All considered, New Hampshire got off easy. It was second behind Iowa before, and now it’s second behind South Carolina, albeit tied with Nevada. That didn’t stop representatives from New Hampshire joining those from Iowa as the DNC’s only objectors to this new proposed calendar.
  • Nevada breaks even. It’s promoted to tied for second, but being all by itself as the third contest may have made it just as significant.
  • Georgia?! Michigan?! Democrats clearly want a head start in these general election battlegrounds, one southern and one northern. Big wins for these two states.
  • But the biggest winner, of course, is South Carolina. If the calendar is adopted, it moves from fourth to first.

Why South Carolina first? If we’re being generous, the party is hoping to make amends with the African American community — a community that has been voting Democrat for president for a century — by finally giving it more of a say in the primary lineup. South Carolina is over a quarter black, a portion that dwarfs the other early states, as charted by the Brookings Institute:

If we isolate just Democrats, black voters made up about 60%(!) of its 2020 South Carolina Primary. Placing South Carolina first gives a lot more attention to issues important to African Americans.

And yet, if we’re not being generous, we might have the cynical take that this calendar is getting pushed by President Biden himself. And why might that be? To ward off any potential 2024 challengers, of course! Recall that in 2020, President Biden finished out of the top three in both Iowa and New Hampshire. It took a win in South Carolina to get the party to finally line up behind him. Heading into 2024, where his age and perceived mental acuity make him vulnerable to a challenge, he wouldn’t want to be in a situation where a younger, more vigorous challenger bruises him in Iowa or New Hampshire, triggering the kind of reassessment that led to Truman and LBJ withdrawing their candidacy ahead of their potential re-elections in 1952 and 1968. By placing South Carolina first, he’s not only more assured of starting with a win and signaling to subsequent voters that he’s got this, but more importantly this likely scenario scares off any realistic challengers. Sketchy sketchy.

What’s more is that this calendar may have over-corrected for what might not have been that big of a problem. It’s worth remembering that Biden won the nomination despite not winning in the three states before South Carolina. Therefore, the 2020 scenario gave South Carolina a lot of influence despite going fourth. Before him, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders split Iowa and New Hampshire in 2016, just as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had eight years before that. In each of these cases, South Carolina had considerable power and in fact voted for the eventual nominee. Its record in voting for nominees this century is perfect. The same can’t be said for Iowa and New Hampshire. So is moving up all that important? Perhaps, like the fourth quarter of a basketball game, being fourth actually gives it more importance.

That said, I do agree that it makes sense to start a primary in a way that better represents a national party, and Iowa was not the way to do that. But neither is South Carolina! The country is not 26% black, and the party is not three-fifths black. Back in 2019, FiveThirtyEight conducted a nifty data crunch to find out which states are most racially representative of the Democratic Party. In the top five were Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Florida, and Nevada. South Carolina, on the other hand, ranked sixth from the bottom. (For the record, New Hampshire and Iowa didn’t acquit themselves too well either — 34th and 42nd, respectively — but even that was better than South Carolina.) Further, to make Georgia an early state even though it borders South Carolina doesn’t at all reflect geographical diversity, a further mark against the the ostensible purpose of this re-ordering.

And then there’s electoral and political considerations. Dismissing white voters at a time when they’re dripping out of the party may exacerbate a very real problem for the Democrats. There’s also the tradition of Iowa and New Hampshire going first, which has created civically minded voters. Those voters take their responsibility seriously, and their increased experience in vetting candidates should not be taken for granted. Plus, they’re small states, making it possible for an under-resourced candidate to meet a larger portion of their electorate. South Carolina’s population of over 5 million is more than Iowa and New Hampshire combined. As for Georgia and Michigan, they are two of the ten biggest states in the country. That will ensure money and name recognition are more necessary than ever to compete. As a fan of the past candidacies of Klobuchar, Buttigieg, Kasich, and Huntsman, I know how much they relied on meeting many voters from the opening small states to even have a chance at a springboard to the bigger states against better funded and more well known opponents.

All considered, I think the cons of this change outweigh the pros. I do think the calendar needed tinkering, but I’m sticking with my idea that the four traditional early states rotate in a four-year cycle, with Iowa and New Hampshire separated:

But Biden and the DNC’s solution? It’s not much of a solution at all.

And if I know Democrats, they’re going to screw up this rollout anyway. Just because the President and the DNC have voted to approve this calendar doesn’t mean it’s officially adopted. Elections are run by states, so the DNC would need individual states’ agreement to actually hold elections on the proposed dates. States have until January 5 to show they’ll be able to do so, or they risk forfeiting their spot. That’s easier said than done. For example, a Georgia statute requires its secretary of state to schedule its Republican and Democratic primaries on the same day. Since Republicans don’t want to mess with their February primaries, one party has to concede there. And since Georgia has a Republican Governor and Republican Secretary of State, I don’t like Democrats’ chances to get their way.

Similarly, Iowa and New Hampshire officials, Democrats included, are insulted by these developments, and they might hold their contests whenever they feel like it. Indeed, New Hampshire has a state law that it must hold the first primary. (Since Iowa only held “caucuses” before it, New Hampshire has still held the first “primary.”) The DNC is within bounds to penalize any delegation that doesn’t stick with its official calendar, perhaps reducing its votes at the Democratic National Convention by 50% or even totally, but it’s plausible that the two states stick to their principles and call the DNC’s bluff. There’s also the fact that winning Iowa and New Hampshire have been important not because of their delegate hauls, which are meager, but because they’re testing grounds for campaigns’ effectiveness and because they are narrative-shapers in the media. The DNC could nullify all these states’ delegates if they vote too early, but if candidates still compete to win them then their value essentially remains.

Ultimately, I’m so bearish on the possibility of this overhaul that I think those who proposed it might well know it’s doomed to fail. It’s only purpose might be as a sop to South Carolina and the African American community, essentially a, “See? We tried!” They might have to try harder.


Today’s featured image starts from the helpful interactive states map at amcharts.com, but the expert Microsoft Paint work on top of it is all PPFA.

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