The schedule shifts influence from Iowa and New Hampshire, which are overwhelmingly white, and gives enhanced and earlier power to Blacks, Latinos and other minorities.
Following their leader, Democrats on Friday approved a historic shake-up of the presidential primary schedule that would kick New Hampshire and Iowa out of their traditional first-in-the-nation roles and elevate states to give Black, Hispanic, Asian American, Muslim and labor union voters a bigger voice.
The new schedule, which still must be approved by the full Democratic National Committee early next year, would set the first primary in South Carolina, the state where President Joe Biden’s commanding win in 2020 put him on the path to the Democratic nomination.
New Hampshire and Nevada would be next in line the following week, and subsequent primaries would be held in Georgia, a new battleground for Democrats, and Michigan, a longtime swing state Democrats lost in 2016, regained in 2020 and racked up major victories in the 2022 midterms.
The schedule shifts early influence away from Iowa and New Hampshire, which are overwhelmingly white, and gives enhanced and earlier power to Blacks, Latinos and other minorities whose votes are essential to the Democratic base.
South Carolina and Georgia are home to many Black voters, and a substantial number of Latinos. Nevada has many Hispanics, as well as Native Americans. Michigan is home to union voters and a substantial Muslim population.
The recommendations were made by Biden to the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, and members Friday overwhelmingly signed onto the plan – even as it meant upsetting states whose civic identities are closely tied to their longtime roles as pickers of presidents.
“Sometimes we hold onto tradition because they give us a foundation from which we grow,” DNC member Donna Brazile, a longtime Democratic operative who was the first Black woman to direct a major presidential campaign, working for 2000 nominee Al Gore.
But “we also believe that tradition can be passed down and transferred, especially when you are opening up new doors and you are helping to expand the electorate, so every American can enjoy full citizenship,” Brazile added in a passionate defense of the dramatic upending of the primary schedule.
Iowa and New Hampshire pride themselves on being diligent vetters of presidential hopefuls, their small size and relatively inexpensive media markets allowing even unknown candidates to make their cases to voters. But the committee decided it was time for a change.
The representatives from Iowa and New Hampshire were the only ones to vote “no” on the updated nominating schedule.
The Democrats’ schedule does not affect Republican nominating contests. The Republican National Committee voted in April to keep things unchanged, with Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada going first.
The states that lost in the competition – Iowa, where glitches in the 2020 caucuses led to a days-long delay in finalizing results – and New Hampshire, which like Iowa is a largely white state – conveyed their unhappiness through their representatives at the meeting. But they also appeared resigned to the outcome.
Scott Brennan, representing Iowa, said he had “no doubt” that his opposition to the new schedule would be viewed as simply a “knee jerk” reaction to the Hawkeye State losing its distinction as home to the first presidential caucuses. But kicking Iowa out of the early contests, he said, sends a dangerous signal by a party seeking to expand support among traditionally red constituencies.
“Small rural states like Iowa must have a voice in the presidential nominating process,” he said.
New Hampshire’s representative on the committee, Joanne Dowdell, praised Biden’s “very bold statement about his vision for the country.” But she noted that New Hampshire state law requires the Granite State to hold its primary ahead of all other states.
“And we will not be breaking our law,” she added.
Nevada is also unhappy, having hoped its demographic mix of a 29% Latino population, 10% Black population, large rural areas and strong union presence in the cities would propel it to first-in-the-nation status. Nevada state legislative leaders issued a statement Friday saying they would not approve the new date.
Graham Wilson, counsel for the DNC, told committee members Friday that states that did not accommodate the new schedule would lose their “waiver” – meaning they would be relegated to join the rest of states holding primaries on or after the first Tuesday in March.
At first blush, the new schedule appears to reward states that were helpful to Biden in 2020, while punishing those that rejected him. Biden placed fourth in Iowa, behind current Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
In New Hampshire, Biden placed fifth, and it looked like his third campaign for the presidency would end. But with the backing of one of South Carolina’s most influential Democrats, Rep. James Clyburn, Biden won the state and gained momentum.
In the general election, Biden flipped Georgia, which had not voted for a Democrat for president since 1992, and re-took Michigan, a swing state 2016 Democrat Hillary Clinton lost to former President Donald Trump.
But Biden said – and DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee members agreed – that the shift in the schedule was an overdue accommodation of the diverse nation America has become – and where it is fast moving.
The new schedule is “reflective of the values of the Democratic Party,” and of the “new South,” that is more inclusive and diverse, DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison said after the vote.
“The Democratic Party looks like America,” Harrison said. “This proposal by President Biden will reflect the strength of America’s greatest asset, and that is our diversity,” he added.
Harrison, former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said he had not learned that Biden had sent a letter recommending the Palmetto State as first in the nation until Thursday night, when – “with shrimp in my mouth” – he was told about it at the state dinner for French President Emanuel Macron.
It’s not clear how far the dissatisfied states are willing to go to retain their early voting status. In 2008, Michigan and Florida moved up their primaries to January, against the dictates of the national party.
The DNC sanctioned them by at first denying their delegates the right to attend the convention, then softening the punishment to allow delegates to attend but with just half a vote each.
Paradoxically, that year the contest was so close between candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama that the later primaries ended up having more significance.