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How Democrats’ new primary calendar changes the chessboard


Supporters at a rally in Columbia, S.C. cheer for Joe Biden after he won the state’s primary election on Feb. 29, 2020. Under a proposal from President Biden, South Carolina would be the first state to hold its primary elections in 2024.

By Blake Hounshell and Lisa Lerer


When a panel of Democratic Party insiders endorsed President Joe Biden’s preferred lineup of early presidential nominating states late last week, they didn’t just shatter the exalted status of Iowa and New Hampshire voters.


They also formally aligned themselves with a demographic reckoning decades in the making, reflecting the growing clout of the racially diverse coalition that brought Biden to power — and implicitly rebuking two overwhelmingly white states that rejected him in 2020.


According to the proposal recommended by Biden and adopted by the party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, South Carolina would now go first, holding its primary Feb. 3, 2024. Three days later, Nevada and New Hampshire would follow. Georgians would vote next on Feb. 13, then Michiganders on Feb. 27.


For political obsessives, the change — which must still be voted on by the whole committee — feels sweeping and swift.


“For the .000001% of people who follow this stuff, this is equivalent to an earthquake,” said Julián Castro, the former secretary of housing and urban development who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. “For it to change this much in one cycle is both impressive and will be very impactful in the years to come.”


Castro spent years arguing that Iowa should lose its spot at the front of his party’s presidential nominating calendar, even starting his primary campaign with an event in Puerto Rico — an intentional symbolic rejection of Iowa. He praised the new schedule, saying the broader diversity of states would offer opportunities to a wider range of candidates.


Donna Brazile, former acting chair of the Democratic National Committee, said the changes would offer myriad benefits to the party, “from hearing the voices of people who tend not to matter to candidates until the end to lifting up those who also might need to be part of the process.”


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


“You cannot win the White House without the heartland of America,” she said.


The panel’s decision is not the last word on the calendar. Democrats will need to persuade Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, to set the date of his state’s primaries according to the wishes of the Democratic National Committee, rather than those of his own party.


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


If Biden runs, the state that set him on a path to the nomination in 2020 will offer a formidable first hurdle to any challengers.


“He’s created a firewall against any insurgency,” said David Axelrod, one of the architects of former President Barack Obama’s political rise. “It doesn’t mean he will run. But it certainly suggests he intends to.”


Those seeking to unseat the president would need to connect with South Carolina’s majority Black primary electorate, which is 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.


If Biden does not run, the new lineup is likely to scramble generations of electoral calculations.


For decades, the Iowa caucuses were an early proving ground for upstart candidates, including Jimmy Carter and Obama. The state carried mystique as a kingmaker, even as it increasingly evolved to be older, whiter and more Republican than Democratic. The chaotic counting of the state’s caucus voters in 2020, when final results took a week, marked its demise for many.


A number of party strategists argued that the low costs of campaigning in South Carolina would allow underdogs to continue to surprise the country.


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


Bird, who helped guide Obama to a nearly 30-point primary win in South Carolina in 2008, said the diversity there would force candidates to spend more time in rural Black communities, historically Black colleges and universities and Southern cities, and less time in grange halls and the living rooms of caucus microinfluencers.


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


“If it’s an open primary in the future, you could have lots of different strategies,” Bird said. “You could have someone that skips South Carolina altogether. You could have someone that skips Nevada. It will be fascinating to see.”


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