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A Biden-backed shakeup of Democrats' presidential calendar is OK'd by a party panel

President Biden speaks during a White House news conference Thursday.
Susan Walsh
President Biden speaks during a White House news conference Thursday.

President Biden is calling for upending Democrats' presidential primary calendar, elevating South Carolina to the first spot, moving the swing states of Georgia and Michigan up to the early slate, and putting Iowa back in the pack.

Word of Biden's proposal came out Thursday evening, ahead of a Democratic Party gathering to vote to shake up the order of states on the 2024 nomination calendar.

The president is calling for South Carolina — a state with a sizable Black population, which notably turned around his fortunes in the 2020 race — to go first, followed in the early window by New Hampshire and Nevada, then Georgia and Michigan.

His plan, which was revealed to party members but not released publicly, was first reported by The Washington Post. Scott Brennan, an Iowan and member of the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee, confirmed the proposed changes to Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters.

For decades, presidential hopefuls have faced their first tests with voters in the heavily white states of Iowa and New Hampshire. In a letter to the committee endorsing an overhaul of the calendar, Biden stressed the party's diversity.

"We must ensure that voters of color have a voice in choosing our nominee much earlier in the process and throughout the entire early window," Biden wrote. His letter to the DNC didn't mention his specific proposal for states.

"For decades, Black voters in particular have been the backbone of the Democratic Party but have been pushed to the back of the early primary process," he wrote. "We rely on these voters in elections but have not recognized their importance in our nominating calendar. It is time to stop taking these votes for granted, and time to give them a louder and earlier voice in the process."

Biden added Democrats should "no longer allow caucuses as part of our nominating process," a foundational principle that the Rules and Bylaws Committee, which has been overseeing the process of states submitting proposals to hold early contests, had set in weighing which states to elevate.

Iowa holds caucuses, and Nevada recently moved away from them.

Biden also called on the committee to review the calendar every four years in order to "ensure that it continues to reflect the values and diversity of our party and country."

The committee, which meets Friday through Saturday in Washington, D.C., still needs to approve the proposal before the full DNC votes on it early next year.

New Hampshire says it's still going first

The New Hampshire Democratic Party reacted swiftly to Biden's plan, calling it "obviously disappointing" but added: "we will be holding our primary first."

"The DNC did not give New Hampshire the first-in-the-nation primary and it is not theirs to take away," NHDP Chair Ray Buckley saidin a statement. "We have survived past attempts over the decades and we will survive this."

New Hampshire's Democratic U.S. senators opposed the Biden proposal, with Jeanne Shaheen saying that it is "tremendously disappointing that the President failed to understand the unique role that New Hampshire plays in our candidate selection process as the first primary state."

Said Sen. Maggie Hassan: "Because of our state's small size, candidates from all walks of life — not just the ones with the largest war chests — are able to compete and engage in the unique retail politics that are a hallmark of our state. This ensures that candidates are battle-tested and ready to compete for our nation's highest office."

Hassan added that "New Hampshire's law is clear and our primary will continue to be First in the Nation."

Generations of voters in New Hampshire have treated the ability to kick the tires of presidential candidates as their political birthright. The state has a law on the books giving the secretary of state the power to move up the date of the primary to protect its first-in-the-nation status. (Iowa holds the first caucuses.)

Tom Perez, a former DNC chair, told NPR in an interview prior to the release of Biden's plan that there could be consequences if states were to disregard the DNC and hold their contest first anyway.

"If the state decides, to heck with what the DNC said, they do that at their peril," Perez said.

That peril involves the DNC not seating delegates of states that ran afoul of party rules at the nominating convention — a major blow to a state party.

"That's a pretty blunt instrument," Perez underscored. "If your delegates don't matter in a convention, you're not going to be very happy as a state."

Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the DNC could also reduce the number of delegates that are seated at a convention to reduce their power.

"Ultimately, the process is about earning delegates. And if a state election or a caucus cannot earn delegates, then it has been defanged," he said.

Long road to change

Chaos erupted in Des Moines, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 2020, as reporters pressed election officials on why the Democratic caucus results were so delayed.
Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Chaos erupted in Des Moines, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 2020, as reporters pressed election officials on why the Democratic caucus results were so delayed.

Criticism of Iowa and New Hampshire's grip on the top two spots of the presidential nominating calendar has been brewing for years. Many Democrats have long argued the pair don't reflect the party's racial diversity. Technical issues in the 2020 Iowa caucuses that made it difficult to announce a winner only intensified the momentum to adjust the calendar.

In the spring, the DNC approved a resolution that upended the traditional presidential nominating calendar, which places the Iowa caucuses first, followed by primaries in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

The DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee invited states and territories to apply to be considered for the early window of states, and 17 states made formal pitches to the committee over the summer.

The committee is transparent about what it's looking for: demographic diversity, states that have primaries rather than caucuses, election administration, and how competitive a state will be in the general election.

"In the case of the Democratic Party, there is a template that the first four states will represent for the four principal regions of the country," Galston said. "And so if Iowa is displaced, then the replacement will have to be another state from the Midwest. There is a quiet behind-the-scenes shootout going on within the Democratic Party between Michigan and Minnesota to be the replacement for Iowa."

Michigan and Minnesota are both fresh off of big election wins for Democrats. Both have more diverse populations than Iowa.

Though as a red state it's not competitive in the general election, South Carolina also has a strong argument to remain in the early window, if not move up.

"South Carolina was the first opportunity for Black voters who are really the backbone of the Democratic Party to have a meaningful say," Perez said. "So I think one thing that needs to happen is we shouldn't be waiting for until the fourth primary or caucus to have Black voters have their opportunity to be heard."

Nevada is also angling for first place. Advocates point to its growing AAPI and Latino populations, a heavy union presence and a mix of urban and rural areas.

DNC member Yvanna Cancela was part of the team that pitched Nevada to the committee over the summer.

"Nevada has a 24-hour economy, and Democrats over the last decade have done the work to ensure our 24-hour economy doesn't hold people back from having as much access to the ballot box as possible," Cancela told NPR, pointing to the state's early voting period, mail-in balloting and same-day voter registration.

"It's also a two-media-market state, which makes it affordable to campaign on airwaves," Cancela said. "We are big enough to truly test a nominee, but we are also small enough for candidates who are more of a long shot to be able to compete."

Perez praised Nevada for passing a law last year establishing it will use a primary in 2024 and not a caucus, which he said guarantees higher participation rates.

"Nevada should be in that early mix," he said. "I think they should be rewarded for doing that because they are embodying a critical principle of maximizing participation."

What's the big deal, anyway?

Opening states not only get outsized attention from presidential candidates but also get millions of dollars injected into their economy.

"If you're in an early primary or caucus state and you happen to own a hotel, that's really good news for you," Galston said. "Owning a restaurant is a good thing, if you have a rental car company — you've hit the jackpot. It's not just a week, we're talking about months and months."

Candidates and their campaign staff spend a disproportionate amount of time in early states, which means residents not only benefit economically, they also get to spend more time vetting presidential hopefuls.

"There's a famous story about a new New Hampshire voter who was asked what he thought of a particular candidate," Galston said. "The voter replied, 'Well, it's too early to say yet, I've only met him three times.' "
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt
Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.

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