early and often

Will Biden’s Primary-Calendar Power Play Actually Work?

Joe Biden whoops it up with South Carolina supporters after the state’s 2020 primary salvaged his presidential candidacy. Photo: Elizabeth Frantz/REUTERS

Several days ago, the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee approved Joe Biden’s plan to overhaul the 2024 presidential calendar to replace first-in-the-nation Iowa with South Carolina while adding Georgia and Michigan to the early-state primary mix. But the proposal is already hitting some bumps, from uncooperative Republicans to the threat of states “going rogue.” And if Biden’s power play succeeds in scaring off Democratic rivals, the full implications of the new calendar may not be realized until 2028. Here’s a closer look at some of the issues with the proposed shake-up.

Can these states actually move their primaries?

The first major issue is that there’s not really a national primary system; national parties can nudge states, but ultimately each one sets its own primary date.

In Georgia, the secretary of State (currently Republican Brad Raffensperger) sets the presidential-primary date for both parties. One of Raffensperger’s deputies rained a bit on the DNC’s parade, as the Washington Post reported:

Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs told The Washington Post on Monday that Georgia would not change its historical primary schedule if it cost either party delegates and would not hold different primary dates for Democrats and Republicans in 2024.

Officials at the Republican National Committee — which already has set a calendar that would punish Georgia if its primary is held before Super Tuesday, when a raft of contests are held — have said there are no plans to revisit the rules.

The RNC, you see, forbids any states other than Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina from holding contests prior to March 1 and imposes a heavy penalty in lost delegates for states that try to jump over the velvet rope.

Raffensperger could change his mind about separate primaries, as he’ll be under intense pressure from interests in the state who want the economic advantages of an early primary. And as primary-calendar wizard Josh Putnam has noted, there is potentially a four-day window between March 1 and March 5 when Georgia could hold Democratic and Republican primaries without violating anyone’s rules — though that would make Georgia, rather than Michigan, the final early state for Democrats. But it’s not great for the DNC that there’s a hiccup in the plan so soon.

In South Carolina, the two parties can schedule their own primaries, and there’s plenty of precedent for separate contests. Michigan’s Democratic trifecta should make it relatively easy for that state to move dates around as needed. Nevada’s Democratic legislature needs to secure cooperation from newly elected Republican governor Joe Lombardo on primary dates. It could all get tricky, but the DNC calendar is very much on the table.

Will any states go rogue?

Two states’ representatives on the Rules and Bylaws Committee voted against the Biden-suggested plan: Iowa, which lost its early-state status altogether and may not be able to hold its traditional caucuses at any point in the cycle, and New Hampshire, which lost the first-primary status it has held since 1952. Both states have laws dictating that they hold (respectively) the first caucus and the first primary, and Republicans intend to leave them where they are on the calendar (though in both states they may support even earlier contests to get ahead of other Democratic contests). It’s not clear if Democrats in either state could comply with the DNC-imposed dates even if they wanted to, which they don’t.

So the big question is whether a potential loss of delegates and perhaps direct sanctions on candidates (e.g., by barring them from participation in DNC-authorized debates) can make rogue-state contests meaningless. Assuming there are Democratic presidential candidates other than Biden, will any of them gamble on running in Iowa and New Hampshire if there’s a chance it will make them pariahs? It seems unlikely, but the Iowa–New Hampshire duopoly has held on to its status for so long by never showing a moment of doubt or fear.

It’s also possible that Nevada Democrats — who were already planning to replace their traditional caucus with a primary and duel with New Hampshire for first-primary status — will challenge South Carolina’s elevation to the first spot. But it’s unclear if Nevadans are prepared to go rogue.

Will there be serious dissent from prominent Democrats?

Democrats are used to ignoring incessant complaints about the primary calendar or accommodating them indirectly (e.g., when hostility to the duopoly led to an expansion of the charmed circle of early states to include Nevada and South Carolina ahead of the 2008 cycle). But aside from the states displaced by the plan to elevate South Carolina, some interests in the Democratic Party fear the new calendar may compromise their influence over the presidential nominating process.

The first major trumpet blast against the DNC calendar came from 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir in a New York Times op-ed. Shakir approved of Iowa’s defenestration but attacked the idea of South Carolina going first on grounds that the Palmetto State is not at all competitive in general elections:

South Carolina is not a battleground state: Mr. Trump carried it by double digits in 2020. It is way more ideologically and culturally conservative than our party and our nation. And the state is not trending in any way toward the Democratic Party …

Aware of the process’s economic power, many of our Democratic campaigns employed union-friendly hotels, restaurants and vendors when we were active in Iowa. Good luck finding that in South Carolina, one of the fiercest anti-union, anti-labor states in the country. In fact, South Carolina is already first in the nation at something that it shouldn’t be proud of; it is the lowest-density union state in America. It should thus never be in contention to be first on our calendar.

It’s no accident, of course, that South Carolina is a state with relatively few of the young, white progressive activists or Latinos who were important to Sanders’s campaigns in 2016 and 2020. And it’s the state that in 2020 knocked Sanders out of his front-running status — for good, as it turned out. And that leads to the final consideration of the DNC plan.

Will Biden clear the 2024 field, making the whole issue moot?

It’s entirely possible that Biden (whose plan this really was; South Carolina Democrats, it transpires, didn’t even ask to go first in 2024) imposed this calendar on the DNC to strongly discourage any 2024 competition. If that strategy works, then the new calendar really won’t matter. Republicans, who will almost certainly have a competitive 2024 nomination contest, will dominate the political news heading into the cycle, and political reporters will trudge through the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire just as they always have.

That leaves the future unresolved, though. DNC leaders have made a big point of insisting that the proposed new Democratic calendar is for 2024 only; it plans to hold an entirely new competitive process whereby any and all states are invited to show why they should be early states in 2028. But the truth is that once the duopoly is dislodged and other states become invested in going first, ousting them will be difficult. That’s particularly true if a first-in-the-nation South Carolina primary becomes a symbol of Black influence in the Democratic Party. Observers are already noting that the Biden-imposed schedule may be highly accommodating to the succession of his vice-president, though it should be remembered that Kamala Harris did not get much traction in South Carolina in 2020. Still, there’s potentially a lot at stake for future candidates in these decisions, even if the Iowa–New Hampshire duopoly for Democrats is gone for good.

Note: the original version of this post inadvertently misstated the position of Georgia’s Deputy Secretary of State on a potential Democratic primary change.

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Will Biden’s Primary-Calendar Power Play Actually Work?