early and often

Why Democrats Upended Their Primary Calendar

The old Iowa-New Hampshire duopoly is history.

Looks like the sad 2020 Iowa Caucuses were the last to really matter. Photo: Brian Snyder/REUTERS
Looks like the sad 2020 Iowa Caucuses were the last to really matter. Photo: Brian Snyder/REUTERS

The half-century run of Iowa as the first stop on the road to the Democratic presidential nomination has finally come to an end. On Friday, the Rules and Bylaws panel of the Democratic National Committee ejected the state from the charmed circle of sanctioned “early states” holding contests prior to March. But thanks to a last-minute push from President Biden, the calendar-makers didn’t just dump Iowa and move up the other states while adding Michigan as a new midwestern early state, as many expected. Instead, South Carolina, in the fourth position since it first became an “early state” in 2008, will jump all the way to the front of the line. This proposal — which apparently came as a complete surprise to the South Carolinians — likely reflected Biden’s gratitude to Palmetto State Democrats for saving his candidacy in 2020 after terrible defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire. And it could be a signal to potential rivals that he intends to begin 2024 with a bang. But it also shows that Democrats generally are serious about diversity being a hallmark of the party and strong engagement of people of color (a majority of South Carolina Democratic primary voters are Black) being a strategic necessity.

New Hampshire and perhaps even Iowa will fight the new calendar, which will be finalized by the full DNC in February. But it looks like a done deal that states can defy at the peril of losing their 2024 delegates, and perhaps interest from candidates as well. It appears the committee may have made one accommodation to the states that will be second and third in the new calendar by modifying Biden’s proposed calendar to stage New Hampshire and Nevada primaries concurrently just four days after South Carolina’s. But this too will draw some criticism from those who argue less well-known and impecunious candidates need one small state to focus on in the early going, the position Iowa has held since 1972.

In the end, the representatives of Iowa and New Hampshire were the only “no” votes on the proposed 2024 calendar, and both states will threaten to make their own 2024 plans, with Iowa holding a now-unsanctioned caucus (it can’t move to a primary without the cooperation of Iowa Republicans, who are perfectly happy with the existing system and calendar), and New Hampshire following a state law requiring its secretary of State to move its primary back perpetually to maintain its first-in-the-nation primary status. But in a gesture that the national party is not in a mood to negotiate with potential renegade states, its resolution requires proposed “early” states to certify their progress towards implementing the new calendar by early January or lose their exemption from the usual rules banning primaries prior to March.

So how did this shift in the presidential nomination process finally happen after years and years of complaints from Democrats about the Iowa–New Hampshire “duopoly” of wintry states with pale populations? It had been building for years, but Iowa critics got a big gift when tabulation of the 2020 Caucus results collapsed amid a welter of technical problems and human failure (though much of it was caused by new national party reporting requirements). And once it became inevitable Iowa would lose its status, all sorts of changes seemed possible, and for the first time the “duopoly” was helpless to stop them (prior to 2008, pressure to remove Iowa and New Hampshire led instead to the inclusion of Nevada and South Carolina as “early states”). The fact that Democratic presidential candidates will begin first in a place like South Carolina rather than Iowa has profound implications for strategy and messaging, and the addition of two relatively large and diverse states, Georgia and Michigan, matters too.

Iowa’s defenestration from its privileged position is a really big deal to Democrats in that state. Democratic presidential nominees who got a boost from winning Iowa included Jimmy Carter in 1976 and 1980; Walter Mondale in 1984; Al Gore in 2000; John Kerry in 2004; Barack Obama in 2008; and Hillary Clinton in 2016. And it’s not just front-running nomination winners who were happy with beginning their campaign in Iowa: The state’s retail-intensive politics, its plentiful progressive activists, and its manageable size made it attractive to insurgents like Bernie Sanders as well.

It is important to understand, however, that the DNC’s actions have no direct effect on Republican plans for 2024. The RNC has already locked in a calendar with the traditional four states holding contests in their traditional order. In two of the five proposed early states (New Hampshire and Nevada), Republicans have key positions (they hold a trifecta in the former and the governorship in the latter) in determining the state laws governing the primary calendar; in another, Georgia, the Republican secretary of State controls the dates. As nomination-process wizard Josh Putnam points out, only in South Carolina (which is also a state accustomed to Democratic and Republican primaries on different days) can the state Democratic Party control its primary date (though in Michigan a Democratic state legislature will make that decision).

Some wonder why the national parties don’t just adopt a “rational” system like a national primary or rotating regional primaries or whatever “reform” can be devised. But the abiding reality is that states have the exclusive power to set up taxpayer-funded primaries (one advantage of caucuses is that as party-managed and financed affairs, they don’t require any official state legislative authorization); the national parties can nudge them in the desired direction with carrots and sticks, but in the end there’s really no such thing as a primary “system.”

Given this basic structural limitation, Democrats have probably gone about as far and as fast as they could in shuffling the deck for 2024, and even now the rebellious muttering from the excluded or downgraded states could mean trouble down the road. The irony is that if Joe Biden winds up running for reelection without significant Democratic opposition while Republicans have some sort of Trump-DeSantis-Pence-Haley-Pompeo-Cruz donnybrook, the same old calendar, complete with a first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus, may be where all the action is, making the “reformed” Democratic calendar irrelevant (and Democrats are already saying they will revisit the whole subject in 2028). But for now, the old Democratic duopoly looks dead.

Why Democrats Upended Their Primary Calendar