Biden triggers Democratic battle with proposed primary changes


President Biden’s push to elevate South Carolina in the early primary calendar set off a fight this week between Democrats pleased with the changes and those seeking to protect their early voting status.

The Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) rules panel approved a shake-up to the schedule on Friday afternoon that would oust Iowa as the first caucus state in the presidential election cycle and replace it with South Carolina. 

After the Palmetto State, voters in Nevada and New Hampshire would head to the polls on the same day, followed by Georgia and subsequently Michigan.

The vote came after calls to replace the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary had escalated from lawmakers, party leaders and operatives who had pushed for more diversity to set the tone of the nominating contest.  

“Clearly we were disappointed,” Rep. Ann Kuster (D-N.H.) told reporters on Friday. “The New Hampshire delegation made our case to the White House for keeping our first-in-the-nation status.” 

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) was more explicit.  

“I strongly oppose the President’s deeply misguided proposal for changes to the primary calendar,” Hassan wrote on Friday in series of posts on Twitter before the vote. “Make no mistake, New Hampshire’s law is clear and our primary will continue to be First in the Nation.” 

The DNC has yet to formally adopt the new schedule, but is expected to decide in 2023 at a larger meeting.

On paper, Iowa and New Hampshire, which have voted first and second for decades, are strikingly similar. They are both small and rural with largely white populations, a composition that created tensions among Democrats in other states who say they create a skewed vision of who should be nominated.  

Biden leaned into that argument this week, presenting a case for more diversity in the party’s primary calendar.  

“It is time to stop taking these voters for granted, and time to give them a louder and earlier voice in the process,” Biden wrote in a letter to the Democratic National Committee. 

While Democrats in the first two states agree with the idea of giving more prominence to voters of color, some are simultaneously frustrated about likely losing their coveted status.   

“I really hope it doesn’t happen,” said JoAnn Parmer Hardy, a lifelong Iowan and Democratic county party chair from Mason City. “I don’t care if they change the caucus. I just love the date.” 

In Iowa, things have been contentious for some time. The Hawkeye State, which has voted first for 50 years, was downgraded in many Democrats’ minds after a tech screw-up meant to make it easier to vote caused a confusing scene and sowed distrust in the process on caucus day in 2020, prompting broader questions about the setup. 

Biden explicitly said that he wants to do away with the caucus process in his letter to the DNC.  

“Our party should no longer allow caucuses as part of our nominating process,” he wrote, adding that “it should be our party’s goal to rid the nominating process of restrictive, anti-worker caucuses.” 

Hardy agrees the process needs work, calling it “unwieldy.” But she doesn’t believe the date should be reordered.

“I hate caucuses,” she said. “But I love the calendar.”  

A substantial bump off the first month of voting would change the nature of grassroots organizing, Hardy suggested, where local activists and workers spend a year in advance of the event and Democrats work with volunteers to raise money and help promote more marginal contenders. 

“We’ll watch the news, but we won’t get to meet the candidates,” she said. “We study up on the issues and we ask them good questions. We’ll really miss that.” 

The anxiety from Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats played out as South Carolina lawmakers and party operatives, meanwhile, were expressing their excitement. 

“This is a huge step,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist based in Columbia, S.C., and close ally of Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who delivered Biden a significant endorsement at a critical moment before South Carolinians cast their ballots in 2020. 

“Being in the early window is important, but being first sends a strong message about how much the president thinks of the most loyal and consistent voting bloc in our party, and that’s Black voters,” Seawright said. “It’s a recommendation from the president.”  

South Carolina holds a special fondness and electoral importance to Biden. He won the state handily during the last Democratic presidential primary and the victory effectively turbocharged his campaign, which had been lagging after poor performances in Iowa and New Hampshire.  

Democrats who support the move said that changing the lineup would show that the party intends to do more than court Black voters during election time and will give something back to the base that has been critical to Democrats’ successes at the ballot box. 

“It sends a message that South Carolina has proven to be a political laboratory to test a candidate’s message, to test their ability to navigate the geographic terrain,” said Seawright.  

The enthusiasm for broader representation is not confined to the Southern contest. Even some Democrats who have spent time in smaller rural states are acknowledging that the party needs to promote more diverse places first.  

“If you’ve worked in New Hampshire, a lot of the voters on the ground would always ask candidates how are they going to resonate with people of color?” said Michael Ceraso, who was a state director in New Hampshire for 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg and also helped Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) there. “This is the way they do that,” he said, backing the South Carolina-first pitch. 

“If you’re a candidate running for president … instead of having to run for office in predominantly white communities, you’re now going to create a campaign strategy to focus and target your policies with voters who are often overlooked and marginalized, but are also critical to you winning or losing a presidential primary,” he said. 

Michigan was also affected by the rules committee’s reshuffle. It is now poised to hold the fifth primary.

The state is among Democrats’ most crucial for the general election. Biden captured it by less than 3 percent in 2020, and in November Democrats turned the state legislature blue, a show of force that caught the attention of national operatives.  

Michigan Democrats were elated at the prospect of moving up. 

“He knows that any road to the White House goes through the heartland of America,” Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) said on Capitol Hill about Biden. “We fought for years that no one state should have a lock on going first.” 

Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) said she wasn’t aware of how the president came to his decision, but remained optimistic for her own state’s chances for a better position. 

“We’re just happy to be in the first handful,” she said.

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