Democrats Elevate South Carolina, Michigan In New Presidential Primary Schedule

Members of a key party committee voted to adopt President Joe Biden's preferred changes to the nominating schedule.
President Joe Biden put forward a plan to transform the Democratic presidential nominating schedule prior to Friday's meeting of a key committee.
President Joe Biden put forward a plan to transform the Democratic presidential nominating schedule prior to Friday's meeting of a key committee.
Evan Vucci/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee adopted President Joe Biden’s recommended changes to the presidential primary schedule Friday, making South Carolina the first primary state and Michigan the first Midwestern primary state.

In keeping with the suggestions that Biden made to the committee Thursday, the first five primaries in the 2024 election cycle are now set to be South Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Georgia, and Michigan. New Hampshire’s and Nevada’s primaries would occur on the same day shortly after South Carolina’s contest in February of that year, followed by Georgia and Michigan on separate dates later in the month.

The changes remove Iowa from its historic place at the start of the presidential primary calendar and dramatically elevate the status of South Carolina and Michigan, states with more racial diversity.

“We feel strongly that this window that reflects our values paints a vibrant picture of our nation and creates a strong process that will result in the best Democratic nominee,” Minyon Moore, a co-chair of the Rules and Bylaws Committee, said at the start of the committee’s meeting in Washington on Friday.

The broader membership of the Democratic National Committee must still vote to approve the plan at a winter meeting in February, but that is widely viewed as a formality.

Proponents of Michigan’s prime spot in the new schedule touted the state’s large Black, Latino and Arab American populations; the strength of its organized labor movement; and its status as a critical swing state.

“Michigan’s a much closer approximation of the diversity of the country and I think a much more important test of whether a candidate has what it takes to win a national election,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who personally lobbied Biden on Michigan’s behalf, told HuffPost on Thursday.

But the outcome is a disappointment to representatives of Nevada, who were angling for the inaugural berth, and representatives of Minnesota, which argued that its moderate size made it a more natural fit as the first Midwestern primary.

Ken Martin, the chair of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, told HuffPost on Thursday that Michigan’s size would make it expensive for new candidates to compete and would reduce the number of small, in-person meetings with voters that have historically characterized the first few primary contests.

“There is deep concern about Michigan’s size, both as it relates to the ability for candidates in that early window to compete and also the fact that their delegate size would dwarf the other three early states and it could skew the whole early state process,” Martin said.

For their part, New Hampshire’s representatives to the DNC — and its congressional delegation — have said that they plan to proceed with the timing of their primary, despite any changes that the DNC makes to its schedule. Its status as the first-in-the-nation primary is enshrined in state law, noted the Granite State’s leading Democrats.

“We do have a law. We will not be breaking our law,” Joanne Dowdell, a New Hampshire member of the Rules and Bylaws Committee and one of two members of the group to vote against the adoption of the new schedule, said at Friday’s meeting. “I feel that any lawyer in the room or around the table would agree that it is not in the best interest of this body to even suggest that we do that.”

But senior officials at the DNC are confident that the party has the power to either pressure New Hampshire into changing its state law or to penalize it by diminishing its significance in the presidential primary calendar.

In the past, national political parties have punished states that adopt a presidential primary date by reducing the number of convention delegates that a presidential candidate who wins the state can obtain.

The DNC adopted rules in August that would automatically strip any state that defies the committee’s schedule of half of its convention delegates. The party body could move to deprive such a state of all of its delegates if it so chooses.

In addition, the DNC has forbidden candidates seeking the Democratic nomination from campaigning in a state that jumps the line, including by petitioning to appear on the ballot in such a state, prior to that state’s unsanctioned caucus or primary. (Candidates may campaign in those states after the unsanctioned nominating contest has taken place.)

“We're putting together an order that we think works best for the party.”

- Mo Elleithee, Democratic National Committee member

“Other states that have state laws [related to primaries] are willing to change them,” Mo Elleithee, a veteran Democratic operative and member of the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, told HuffPost on Friday. “We’re putting together an order that we think works best for the party. It’s one that still gives [New Hampshire] a pretty good spot in this lineup.”

Elleithee also countered the criticism of figures like Martin, who ended up voting for the changes in his capacity as a member of the Rules and Bylaws Committee.

“If we were leading off with Michigan, I get it. But we’re not,” he said. “Michigan’s going fifth, which means candidates are still going to be campaigning in those smaller states.”

An irony of the current deliberations over the presidential primary schedule is that the 2024 Democratic nomination is not expected to be contested. Biden has said that he plans to seek a second term. If he follows through on that commitment, he would be the prohibitive favorite against any would-be challengers.

A benefit of reorganizing the primary calendar ahead of the sleepy 2024 nomination process, rather than waiting for the 2028 contest to begin in earnest, is that the political climate inside the party is less charged than it is likely to be in advance of a contested primary.

“This is the time to have this debate, not as we’re walking into an open contest, because then a whole different level of politics seeps in,” Elleithee said.

Many Democrats have been calling for an overhaul of the Democratic presidential primary schedule for some time now. Critics of the Iowa caucus, in particular, had argued that the state’s predominantly white makeup and increasingly Republican orientation made Iowa a poor fit for the opening contest of the contemporary Democratic Party’s presidential nominating process.

The dysfunction that marked the Iowa caucus in 2020 hastened the state’s demise in the Democratic pecking order. A mobile application that the Iowa Democratic Party tapped to tabulate caucus precincts to report their results malfunctioned and miscalculated results, prompting confusion and frustration as Democrats across the country cast doubt on the validity of the convoluted caucus system altogether.

Until Thursday, however, it was unclear whether Biden had a clear plan for restructuring the primary schedule or would leave the DNC officials to develop reforms on their own.

Biden on Thursday made clear to the leadership of the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee what he wanted the first five states to be, and he outlined the broader values he sought to champion with the new schedule in a public letter to the committee.

The principal goal is to ensure that the Democratic presidential nominee prove that they have gained traction with nonwhite voters much earlier in the nominating process than they have had to do to date.

“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. “As I said in February 2020, you cannot be the Democratic nominee and win a general election unless you have overwhelming support from voters of color - and that includes Black, Brown and Asian American & Pacific Islander voters.”

Biden also strongly encouraged states to eliminate caucuses in favor of the more straightforward primary system. He argued that caucuses, which have historically required hours of in-person deliberation, impede broader participation in the nominating process.

“Caucuses - requiring voters to choose in public, to spend significant amounts of time to caucus, disadvantaging hourly workers and anyone who does not have the flexibility to go to a set location at a set time - are inherently anti-participatory,” Biden wrote. “It should be our party’s goal to rid the nominating process of restrictive, anti-worker caucuses.”

Scott Brennan, a member of the Rules and Bylaws Committee from Iowa and the other person to vote against the changes, accused Biden of refusing to acknowledge the progress that Iowa Democrats have made in reforming their caucus process. He noted that the party has switched to an all-mail caucus system.

“Make no mistake, Republicans in Iowa will seize this opportunity to double down on their caucuses and feed the narrative that Democrats have turned their back on Iowa,” Brennan said. “The actions taken here will be taken as a refusal to have a dialogue with voters and will exacerbate electoral difficulties in Iowa.”

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