Who will go first in the 2024 primary election? Democrats are debating the order

WASHINGTON – Democrats are struggling with how to patch together a diverse coalition of voters across a broad range of states that can win future presidential elections.

South Carolina and Nevada are attractive for their diverse voting bases. Michigan and Nevada offer labor-friendly constituencies. Tradition bolsters the case for New Hampshire and Iowa. Minnesota and Georgia, two emerging battleground states, also are in the mix.

The order remains in flux, but it’s increasingly clear that Democrats’ path to the White House could change dramatically in 2024.

Some Democratic strategists and activists say the party’s current method of picking presidents is not reflective enough of the base of voters who delivered President Joe Biden the White House in the 2020 general election.

President Joe Biden speaks during a rally in Conway, South Carolina, on February 27, 2020, during the Democratic presidential primary. South Carolina delivered Biden his first primary victory of the election cycle.

Their early state primary calendar also does not set the party’s candidates up, they fear, for success in key battleground states or give voters of color, a key Democratic constituency, enough of a say in who emerges from the nomination process.

Party activists who are weighing changes to the schedule are keenly aware that Biden won the presidency with 87% support from Black voters, 65% of Latino voters, 61% of Asian voters and 56% of union households, according to exit polling.

The looming decision by a Democratic National Committee panel – anticipated to occur right after the Nov. 8 midterm election – will determine which voters candidates cater to, the issues the party focuses on and the states that wield political power.

“I think it’s really important to make a statement to the diverse communities that support us and make sure that they see themselves as part of this presidential process in doing that,” said Washington State Democratic Party chair Tina Podlodowski.

The order matters.

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Early victories help candidates generate momentum, volunteers and donations – which are critical to keeping campaigns afloat. Candidates who do not come in first, second or third in states that hold early contests often drop out.

DNC members have a lengthy list of conditions they say they want states that vote first to meet: they should be racially diverse, have good cross sections of urban and rural voters, strong labor support, competitive general elections and cheap media markets that candidates can easily campaign in, even if they lack deep pockets.

“We can’t just pay lip service anymore in these communities or expect certain demographics or certain communities to always be loyal to a party without putting in the work without basically putting our words into action,” said Nevada State Democratic Party chair Judith Whitmer. “You know, we like to call ourselves a big tent party. We have to actually show that.”

In two dozen interviews with USA TODAY, party leaders, strategists, activists and DNC members described an urgent need to restructure their primary calendar in order to better reach and represent voters. Democrats are expected to make changes regardless of whether Biden decides to run for reelection.

The last time the party shook up its presidential lineup was in 2006 when the DNC gave Nevada and South Carolina permission to hold their contests right after longtime early states Iowa and New Hampshire.

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Now, members of the panel driving the process are considering adding a fifth state – such as Michigan – into the mix and elevating Nevada to the front of the calendar to help satisfy party members’ concerns.

Democrats remain conflicted about where to put Iowa and are entertaining an idea to hold the Nevada and New Hampshire primaries first and on the same day.

“We want it to be as inclusive as possible with states that invite in as many voters into the primary as possible,” said Mo Elleithee, a veteran Democratic strategist who sits on the DNC committee that is drawing up the recommendations. “And that we are getting a head start on the general election by including as many battleground states as possible.”

Iowa traditionally first

In April the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee effectively dismantled its existing system and required every state to apply for early status. The move was precipitated in part by delays in reporting the results of the 2020 Iowa caucus and longstanding concerns that the state, which U.S. Census data shows has a 4.3% Black population, 2.8% Asian and 6.7% Hispanic population, is not racially diverse enough.

Democrats also say the state that Biden lost in both the primary and the general election does not have a strong track record of voting for its party’s nominees. Since 1980, only one Democratic challenger (Barack Obama in 2008) won Iowa and went on to win the White House. Biden finished a distant fourth in 2020.

Tabulation errors after the last Iowa caucus led to uncertainty about the outcome. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg declared victory in the race that Iowa officials later determined Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., had narrowly won.

Then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden takes photos with people in the crowd at a campaign event at the Hyatt Park community center on May 4, 2019 in Columbia, South Carolina. It was Biden's first visit to South Carolina as a 2020 presidential candidate.

Then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden takes photos with people in the crowd at a campaign event at the Hyatt Park community center on May 4, 2019 in Columbia, South Carolina. It was Biden’s first visit to South Carolina as a 2020 presidential candidate.

Iowa has proposed changes to its caucus system to make it more inclusive and less confusing, but the flaws with its system in 2020 hurt the state’s case to remain the first to vote, Democratic strategist and rules committee member Maria Cardona said.

“So I think the big question is, where will they go? I can’t imagine that at the end of the day, they’re just going to be out of the front of the calendar, because tradition and history and all of that do weigh heavily on all of this,” she said.

Iowa state party chair Ross Wilburn said in a statement to USA TODAY that “discussions surrounding the calendar are purely speculative” ahead of the midterms and “[s]mall rural states like Iowa must have a voice in our Democratic Presidential nominating process.”

Michigan a top contender

Michigan has emerged as a top candidate to complement or replace Iowa in the early window of four or five states. However, concerns over Michigan’s sprawling size and an election law the state’s legislature would have to change for the primary to be held earlier have led Democrats to consider alternatives. Democrats are also looking at the viability of moving up neighboring Minnesota.

Neither state is aiming to be first, but both hope to be added to the early window.

“Move Michigan up,” said Paula Herbart, a DNC member and president of the Michigan Education Association. “We would love to be in that pack of four or five.”

Supporters of the informal proposal to bump up Michigan, which has a 14.1% Black, 3.4% Asian and 5.6% Hispanic population, cite the importance of labor, rural and urban communities, and African-American, Arab and Asian American and Pacific Islander populations in the state. Michigan was also crucial to Biden’s victory in the last presidential election, which has opened the door for its inclusion, DNC members say.

“Everybody is looking at how do we set up the first series of contests so that we can test our candidates’ ability to basically repeat the Biden win and expand the Biden win?” said Elaine Kamarck, an expert on the presidential nominating system and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has sat on the DNC’s rules committee since 1997.

In this photo taken on March 09, 2020 when he was a Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden speaks during a campaign rally at Renaissance High School in Detroit, Michigan.

In this photo taken on March 09, 2020 when he was a Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden speaks during a campaign rally at Renaissance High School in Detroit, Michigan.

Party activists are hopeful that after the midterms Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who is on the ballot this fall, will have an easier time changing the state law.

“Our governor has shown an ability to move legislation through this Republican-controlled legislature,” said Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes. “I feel strongly that we’re going to take one if not both of these houses of the legislature in that election, and then this becomes a different conversation entirely.”

Michigan is not that much more diverse than Minnesota, argued Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party chair Ken Martin. He also noted that Minnesota, which is 7.4% Black, 5.4% Asian and 5.8% Hispanic, only requires the agreement of the state’s Republican Party chair to move up the primary.

“In some ways, I have a much lower threshold to meet than the Michigan Democratic Party or the state of Michigan,” said Martin, who also sits on the DNC rules committee.

Martin said his Republican counterpart is trying to figure out whether there is support in the state GOP to move up the primary and the “potential consequence to him and his party if they decide to move into that window on the Republican side.”

Nevada on the rise

Another idea that has gained traction is moving up Nevada, potentially to the same day as New Hampshire.

New Hampshire has been on the defensive for its lack of diversity: it is 1.9% Black, 3.1% Asian and 4.4% Hispanic, according to U.S. Census data. Promoting Nevada which has 10.6% Black, 9.1% Asian and 29.9% Hispanic populations, would offer some balance.

Some Democrats have questioned the feasibility of candidates with fewer resources to be able to campaign in both states simultaneously.

“I think that you will hear from the candidates saying that … you’re stretching us too thin if we’ve got to go from New Hampshire and go back to Nevada and then back into Hampshire. And I think that that’s something that’s got to be discussed,” AFSCME President Lee Saunders said.

Saunders said Nevada’s bid to go first should be given “serious consideration,” because of its growing union membership and diversity.

Asian American and Latino elected officials and outside groups have coalesced behind Nevada’s bid to hold its primary first.

“If we’re really serious about being representative and listening and embracing and making sure that diverse communities have full participation in the process, then I think we have to look to actually make a bold move and put Nevada first. I think by trying to share the date that sounds more like a concession,” state Democratic Party chair Whitmer added.

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New Hampshire is resistant to any change and says it must go first due to state law.

Joanne Dowdell, a member of the DNC Rules and Bylaws committee from New Hampshire, said the goal of the committee is for the group of states that vote early to collectively paint a picture of the country.

“New Hampshire certainly factors into that, without question,” she said. “I am confident that New Hampshire will remain first.”

People cheer as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is announced as the projected winner in the South Carolina presidential primary on February 29, 2020 in Columbia, South Carolina. South Carolina is the first-in-the-south primary and the fourth state in the presidential nominating process.

People cheer as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is announced as the projected winner in the South Carolina presidential primary on February 29, 2020 in Columbia, South Carolina. South Carolina is the first-in-the-south primary and the fourth state in the presidential nominating process.

That confidence has upset some members of the Rules and Bylaws committee, who chafe at Granite State Democrats’ insistence that tradition and circumstance cement their first-in-the-nation status.

New Hampshire’s determination to hold its primary first presents a serious obstacle to changing the schedule, other Democrats said.

“We’re running into all these problems with state laws. We don’t get to unilaterally decide when they have their primaries, if it’s a government-run primary, and we can’t force them to schedule it at a different time,” said Hawaii committeeman Bart Dame. “We can make threats … and say, we’re not going to seat your delegates, but … that hurts us.”

Georgia on their minds

One pitch that resonated with some Democrats involved swapping Georgia, which flipped blue last cycle, with South Carolina, a reliably red state, in the early voting window.

Some party members expressed reluctance to remove the state that is not only home to DNC chairman Jaime Harrison and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn but also helped Biden come from behind to win the Democratic nomination.

State party chair Trav Robertson said that South Carolina’s mix of urban and rural settings forces candidates to campaign across the state, rather than focus on one or two counties, and has helped it pick winners such as Biden and Obama.

He argued that split media markets along the state’s border with North Carolina and Georgia have also helped candidates spread their message and build out their operations in the neighboring battleground states.

“There would be no fight in North Carolina and there would be no fight in Georgia without South Carolina’s presidential primary process,” Robertson said.

Biden hasn’t weighed in on the decision directly, but committee members stressed that, as leader of the party, his opinion carries significant weight.

A Biden adviser deferred to the DNC and its Rules and Bylaws committee. The party committee declined to provide comment.

“I think that he’s going to let us do our work, and we’re going to come up with something that most people will be very, very happy with,” Saunders said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Democrats weigh tradition, diversity as they shake up 2024 calendar

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