How the Democrats’ new primary calendar changes the chessboard

Supporters at a rally in Columbia, SC cheer on Joe Biden after he won the state's primary on February 29, 2020. (Maddie McGarvey/The New York Times)

Supporters at a rally in Columbia, SC cheer on Joe Biden after he won the state’s primary on February 29, 2020. (Maddie McGarvey/The New York Times)

When a panel of Democratic Party insiders endorsed President Joe Biden’s preferred slate of early presidential candidate states Friday, they didn’t just shatter the exalted status of Iowa and New Hampshire. They also formally aligned themselves with a demographic census decades in the making, reflecting the growing influence of the racially diverse coalition that brought Biden to power — implicitly rebuking two overwhelmingly white states that rejected him in 2020.

Under the proposal recommended by Biden and passed by the party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, South Carolina would now go first and hold its primary on February 3, 2024. Three days later, Nevada and New Hampshire would follow. Georgians would vote next on February 13th, then Michiganders on February 27th.

For political obsessives, the change – which still needs to be voted on by the full committee – feels sweeping and swift.

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“For the 0.000001% of people who follow these things, it’s like an earthquake,” said Julián Castro, the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. “For that to change so much in one cycle is both impressive and will have a major impact for years to come.”

Castro spent years arguing that Iowa should lose its place at the top of his party’s presidential candidate calendar, and he even kicked off his primary campaign with an event in Puerto Rico — a deliberate symbolic rejection of Iowa. He praised the new schedule and said the wider diversity of states would provide opportunities for a wider range of candidates.

Donna Brazile, former acting chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said the changes would provide the party with countless benefits, “from hearing the voices of people who tend not to matter to the candidates, to the end of lifting them up, which should perhaps also be part of the process.”

Biden’s endorsements were perhaps the most telling indicator that he planned to seek re-election, despite the prospect that he would be well into his 80s by the end of a second term. His proposed rearrangement of the political map, noted Mike Murphy, a Republican consultant, happens to be “very Biden-friendly.”

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., who has lobbied for her state’s inclusion in early states since the 1990s, said Biden’s election also reflected a recognition that the party must resist the drag of its bicoastal power centers.

“You can’t win the White House without America’s heartland,” she said.

The panel’s decision is not the last word on the calendar. Democrats will have to somehow persuade Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, to set the date of his state’s primary in accordance with the wishes of the Democratic National Committee rather than his own party.

Disaffected Iowa and New Hampshire may stick to their first-in-the-nation guns, even if the party strips them of delegates in retaliation for their defiance. Democrats running in 2024 — assuming there are any candidates besides or instead of Biden — would then have to decide whether the resulting “beauty pageants” alone were worth bragging about.

If Biden runs again — a decision he has indicated will come early in the new year — the state that put him on the path to the 2020 nomination will offer a formidable first hurdle for any potential challenger.

“He has created a firewall against any rebellion,” said David Axelrod, one of the architects of former President Barack Obama’s political rise. “It doesn’t mean he’s running. But it certainly suggests he has his mind set.”

Those seeking to unseat the president would have to connect with South Carolina’s majority black primary voters, who are more conservative than either Iowa’s prairie progressives or New Hampshire’s northeastern Brahmins. In the state’s 2020 primary, more than 60% of black voters chose Biden over his rivals, according to exit polls.

Biden’s triumph in South Carolina not only revealed the regional appeal of liberal candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, but also the limits of two billionaire candidates who sought to buy a grassroots following: Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer. And it underscored the struggles Pete Buttigieg, then running for whiz-kid mayor of South Bend, Indiana, had to reach especially black voters.

Steve Phillips, a Democrat and author of several books on race politics, said the changes would reward candidates who develop deep ties to black communities, rather than train them to appeal to rural Iowans who might not support them in November.

“You want someone who will inspire and understand black voters to be your nominee,” he said.

If Biden does not run, the new line-up will likely distort generations of electoral calculations.

For decades, the Iowa caucuses were an early proving ground for upstart candidates, including launching Jimmy Carter and Obama on their paths to the White House. The state continued to carry the mystique of a kingmaker, even as it increasingly evolved to be older, whiter, and more republican than democratic. The chaotic count of the state’s 2020 caucus voters, with final results taking a week, marked its demise for many in the party.

A number of party strategists argued that the low cost of campaigning in South Carolina would allow the underdogs to continue surprising the country with a stronger-than-expected showing.

“The state is not so expensive that you can’t live there and get it done,” said Jeremy Bird, a Democratic strategist.

Bird, who helped guide Obama to a nearly 30-point primary victory in South Carolina in 2008, said diversity there would force candidates to spend more time in rural black communities, historically black colleges and universities and southern cities and smaller time in grange halls and living rooms of caucus micro-influencers.

Traditionally, skipping Iowa was seen as a sign of weakness by pundits, donors and strategists. But the fast pace of the first three states, with Nevada and New Hampshire coming in just three days behind South Carolina, could reshape that calculation.

“If it’s an open primary in the future, you can have many different strategies,” Bird said. “You could have someone skipping South Carolina altogether. You could have someone skipping Nevada. It’s going to be fascinating to watch.”

The long-term effect of the changes is still very much unclear. The party says it plans to revise its lineup in four years, raising the prospect that the calendar itself has become less a function of tradition than political juice.

For now, with Georgia’s fate uncertain and Iowa and New Hampshire in potential upsets, the candidates will also have to learn to field a new entry in the early state mix: Michigan, a state that has rarely been in serious contention recently presidential election. primary election.

Compared to pastoral, racially homogeneous Iowa, Michigan presents a burgeoning America in microcosm—an increasingly diverse state of 10 million people that boasts not only one of the nation’s historic centers of black culture, Detroit, but also one of the largest Arab-American populations in the country, among other communities of color scattered in suburbs and smaller cities across the state, like Ann Arbor.

“It’s more like a puzzle,” said Amy Chapman, a Michigan Democratic strategist who ran Obama’s campaign in the state in 2008.

The state’s geographic diversity could allow candidates to essentially choose their own spending adventure, said Eric Hyers, who managed Biden’s 2020 Michigan campaign.

“It’s not like there’s only one media market and it’s prohibitively expensive,” Hyers said. Campaigning in Nevada means spending heavily in the expensive Las Vegas market, and New Hampshire candidates must buy airtime in expensive Boston.

Jeff Link, a Des Moines, Iowa, operative who served as a local guide for Bill Clinton and Obama, said even Obama, who forever changed how presidential candidates raise money, may not have won the nomination in Biden’s proposed calendar.

And yet, even as much of Iowa’s Democratic political world spent Friday wallowing in the loss of what many considered a birthright, Link predicted that as long as Republicans maintained Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status, Democrats would too to the state, even though the state’s election meetings no longer officially mattered. After all, that’s where the media wants to be.

“If you’re in town covering the other side, candidates will show up because you can’t help yourselves,” he said.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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