For many years, four states have kicked off the presidential nomination process: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. But that starting order is set to change in 2024, as the Democrats have voted to overhaul their primary calendar. In this Election Report, voting and elections expert Rhodes Cook describes the reasoning behind this change and explores various implications of the new starting lines.

Document Outline
No Slam Dunk
Democrats Demote Iowa

For years now, the presidential nomination process has begun in Iowa, followed by New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina (or on occasion, South Carolina and Nevada, by the Republicans). Not surprisingly, there has been an ongoing clamor for change from other states wishing to join the "elite four." Yet for one election cycle after another, nothing has changed. That is, until now.

In February 2023, the Democratic National Committee (DNC), at the urging of Joe Biden's White House, voted to adopt a new order of states at the beginning of its 2024 presidential primary calendar. The revised Democratic arrangement would start with South Carolina, voting first on February 3, followed by Nevada and New Hampshire on February 6, Georgia on February 13, and Michigan on February 27, with all five states holding primary elections. The rest of the states could begin holding their primaries or caucuses in early March, including the long-time lead-off state for both parties, Iowa.

Whether it will all turn out the way the Democrats have planned is another matter. South Carolina, Nevada, and Michigan are on board with the new DNC plan. But Georgia and New Hampshire are not. The latter is committed to retaining its first-in-the-nation primary, while the Republican state government in Georgia has fixed its 2024 primary for March.

Still, in concept, the Democratic line-up of early states marks a big change in the presidential nomination process. The old order, which is being retained by the Republicans in 2024, may begin as early as next January, and features four relatively small states atop the calendar. Demographically, the first two-Iowa and New Hampshire-are overwhelmingly white. Not until Nevada votes, with its large Hispanic population, and South Carolina, with its sizable pro-Democratic African American population, do minority voters begin to have a say.

For Biden and the Democrats, that is not good enough. The party's brand is increasingly tied to the idea of racial diversity. Hence, South Carolina is scheduled to lead off the party's presidential primary voting next year. Three days later, Nevada would vote along with New Hampshire.

For the first time, the Democrats have scheduled two populous battleground states to hold primaries after that, Georgia and Michigan, which are racially and ethnically diverse and possess far more electoral clout in November than either Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, or South Carolina. Biden carried both Georgia and Michigan easily in the 2020 presidential primaries and narrowly in the fall's general election.

No Slam Dunk

To many Democrats, now was the time to make major changes in their nomination process. Biden seems to be cruising to easy renomination in 2024, freeing the party's rules makers from needing to balance the desires of competing candidates. The question now is whether the Democrats will be able to institute their bold new early-state calendar.

It is not a slam dunk. As mentioned, Democrats in South Carolina, Nevada, and Michigan are on board with the February 2024 dates assigned by the DNC (with Nevada jettisoning its long-time caucuses in favor of a presidential primary next year).

But Georgia and New Hampshire have not signed on to the Democratic plan. In Republican-controlled Georgia, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced earlier this spring that the Peach State would be holding its presidential primary on March 12 (not February 13) of 2024. In New Hampshire, leaders in both parties have reacted in defiance to efforts to make the state give up its first-in-the-nation primary, a staple in presidential politics since 1952. In revolt, the Granite State could end up scheduling its presidential primary for January 2024, before South Carolina's primary.

How long the uncertainty will last is an open question. The DNC had set June 3, 2023, as the deadline for Democratic parties in the two states to inform the national party as to whether they will comply with the new primary dates. A "wrong" answer could trigger penalties from the DNC, including a reduction in the number of convention delegates the state will receive. Yet no announcement has been forthcoming as to how the Georgia-New Hampshire situation will be resolved.

In reality, Democrats in the two states do have an alternative. They could create separate party-run primaries to circumvent the state-run contests. That way, they could hold their events on the date that the DNC has reserved for them. The downside is that party-run primaries tend to have fewer polling places and shorter polling hours than their state-run counterparts, and consequently draw fewer participants. Also, the state party must pay for such a primary, often hundreds of thousands of dollars that they can ill afford to spend. Still, with so much on the line, the DNC might weigh in with some financial help.

Response to the Democrats' overhaul of the early state calendar has been mixed but emphatic. A Wall Street Journal editorial on February 6, 2023, was headlined, "Rigging the Primaries for Biden," and defended the role of Iowa and New Hampshire over the years in vetting the field of presidential candidates. The Boston Globe weighed in on April 25, 2023, with a strongly worded editorial of its own: "Dems Shouldn't Let N.H. and Iowa Start Nominating Process." The editorial argued that Iowa and New Hampshire no longer deserved their "exalted status" in a nation that was constantly evolving demographically.

Yet the idea of a new Democratic "starting five" has other aims besides racial and ethnic diversity. Clearly, one is the desire of Biden and his allies to reward states that were critical to his nomination as well as reduce in stature those that were not. In 2020, Biden finished a distant fourth and fifth, respectively, in Iowa and New Hampshire. He ran better in Nevada, where he ran a distant second.

The erstwhile Democratic front-runner, Biden entered South Carolina needing a lifeline to keep his candidacy afloat. He got one in the form of a primary-eve endorsement from Rep. Jim Clyburn, number three in the House leadership (as the Democratic majority whip at the time) and South Carolina's most powerful Democrat. With Clyburn's support, Biden scored a landslide victory in the Palmetto State that overnight changed the complexion of the Democratic race in Biden's favor.

Another key factor in the new Democratic order is to tie some of the high-profile early-voting primary states to the fall's Electoral College map, with the idea that any organizing and campaigning for the primary will benefit Biden in the fall. Newcomers Georgia and Michigan are both battleground states with substantial electoral vote totals (Georgia, 16; Michigan, 15.) Republican Donald Trump carried them both in his successful 2016 general election campaign; Biden swept them both narrowly in 2020. And while New Hampshire and Nevada are smaller prizes (Nevada, 6 electoral votes; New Hampshire, 4), both are also battleground states whose electoral votes could be critical if the 2024 election is very close.

South Carolina is the only one of the projected Democratic "starting five" next year that is not a battleground state. Jimmy Carter, a son of the rural South, was the last Democratic presidential nominee to win its electoral votes back in 1976. Trump won South Carolina by 12 percentage points in the 2020 general election.

Democrats Demote Iowa

Once a battleground state but arguably not any more is Iowa, which by and large has been the first state to vote in both the Democratic and Republican presidential nominating contests since the 1970s. For much of the half century since then, it was a battleground state that leaned Democratic in presidential elections. In six of seven contests from 1988 through 2012, the Democratic nominee carried Iowa (the exception being 2004, when Republican incumbent George W. Bush won it by seven-tenths-0.7-of a percentage point).

But since 2012, Trump has swept Iowa twice by a margin approaching 10 points each time. As a consequence, the Hawkeye State is looking more and more like other ruby-red states in the nation's rural heartland, and likely will be off the list of battleground states altogether in 2024.

There is also little doubt that Iowa has worn out its welcome with national Democrats. Over the years, both parties in the state have held precinct caucuses on a winter evening, requiring voters to demonstrate more effort and commitment than if the state had held a straightforward, higher turnout primary with polls open all day.

Complicating the situation, Iowa Democrats have long employed an exotic method of counting the vote that can be complex and difficult to comprehend. In 2020, there were actually three caucus night counts taken by the Iowa Democratic Party: first, a non-binding entrance poll as voters arrived for the caucuses (Bernie Sanders led Pete Buttigieg in this category by more than 6,000 votes); second, a non-binding vote after voters had arranged themselves into viable candidate groupings (Sanders led Buttigieg by more than 2,500 votes in this tally); and third, the vote that actually mattered in determining the allocation of delegates, which has used a measurement called "delegate equivalents." Buttigieg won the latter, 562,954 to Sanders' 562,021, a margin of less than 1 delegate equivalent in an ostensibly complete tally by the Iowa Democratic Party. The razor-thin result raised questions as to which candidate actually won, although Buttigieg received credit for doing so.

If all this was not enough, Iowa Democrats suffered the additional embarrassment on caucus night in 2020 of seeing the new technology they were unveiling to tally the vote actually break down. With media from around the world encamped in Iowa to broadcast the results, there were no votes to analyze until the next day. Quickly, a loud chorus arose throughout the Democratic Party: Begone Iowa caucuses!

The state's Republican Party largely escaped the nearly universal condemnation that befell its Democratic counterparts because the GOP has traditionally employed a simple way of counting the vote that uses primary-like ballots. As a result, Iowa remains number one on the 2024 Republican presidential nomination calendar, and the widening field of GOP candidates is scheduling repeated stops in the state.

Encouraging those not named Trump is the fact that Iowa was the only one of the four early states that Trump failed to win in 2016, losing by 4 percentage points to Ted Cruz. In New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, Trump defeated the primary or caucus runner-up in each state by 19, 11, and 22 points, respectively.

Those upset by the Democrats' new opening calendar next year need not be. It is being viewed by the national party as a one-time experiment. After the 2024 election, party leaders will either tweak their handiwork or do a wholesale revision once again. But it is hard to see them going back to their old order, with Iowa and New Hampshire atop the primary calendar. That Gordian knot has been cut.

Rhodes Cook June 19, 2023

Document Citation
Different starting lines in 2024. (2023).
Document ID: electrpts-2165-120452-3017949
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