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How Democrats’ New Primary Calendar Changes the Chessboard

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

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

When a panel of Democratic Party insiders endorsed President Joe Biden’s preferred lineup of early presidential nominating states Friday, 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.

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“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.

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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.”

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

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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 somehow 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.

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Disgruntled Iowa and New Hampshire might 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 contests” were worth the bragging rights alone.

If Biden runs again — a decision he has indicated is coming early in the new year — the state that set him on a path to the nomination in 2020 will offer a formidable first hurdle to any would-be challenger.

“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.”

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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.

Biden’s triumph in South Carolina exposed not only 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 that Pete Buttigieg, then running as the whiz-kid mayor of South Bend, Indiana, had in reaching Black voters in particular.

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

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“You want somebody who is going to inspire and understand Black voters to be your nominee,” he said.

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 starting Jimmy Carter and Obama on their roads to the White House. The state carried continued 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 in the party.

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

“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.

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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.”

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

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For now, with Georgia’s fate uncertain and Iowa and New Hampshire in potential revolt, candidates will also have to learn how to run in a new entry to the early-state mix: Michigan, a state that has rarely been in serious contention in recent presidential primaries.

Compared with pastoral, racially homogeneous Iowa, Michigan presents an emerging America in microcosm — an increasingly diverse state of 10 million people that boasts not just one of the country’s historical centers of Black culture, Detroit, but also one of the largest Arab American populations in the country, among other communities of color dotted in suburbs and smaller cities across the state, like Ann Arbor.

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

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

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

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

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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 come to the state too, even if the state’s caucuses no longer officially mattered. That is, after all, where the media will be.

“If you guys are in town covering the other side, candidates are going to show up because you can’t help yourself,” he said.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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