Joe Biden’s proposal to no longer take Iowa and New Hampshire as the top states in the Democratic election cycle heading into the next presidential election, but to replace them with the more diverse South Carolina, has been endorsed by the appropriate party committee on Friday. But there is a lot of resistance and criticism.
The order of the primaries in the presidential cycle has long been largely fixed: first Iowa, where a caucus was held. This caucus is a special primary, which includes consultation between voters who meet in small groups. The Iowa session was followed a week later by a real New Hampshire primary. New Hampshire is the first primary in the presidential cycle since 1920 (Iowa is the first caucus since 1972). New Hampshire was followed by a caucus in Nevada, and the fourth event was the South Carolina primary.
In the new proposal, South Carolina comes first, followed three days later by New Hampshire and Nevada (with large Hispanic populations). Georgia and Michigan follow these states. After these five states have had their primaries, it’s time to super tuesday with a large number of states holding their primaries at the same time. Another intervention: Nevada will no longer have a caucus, but will have a real primary like the other states.
The stated intention is, among other things, that two more small, majority-white states — Iowa and New Hampshire — define the front lines of the electoral process and then leave the final selection to larger, more diverse states. South Carolina, where black voters form a majority in the Democratic primary, is more similar in population makeup to the rest of the country than Iowa or New Hampshire. This diverse population will have a voice in the new proposal from the outset and set the course.
State interest? Own good?
Why South Carolina? It’s a Republican-majority state, where Democratic presidential hopefuls will spend a lot of money in the new regime’s primaries with no hope of eventually defeating the Republican in the state.
Party chairman Jaime Harrison is from the state, but according to The Washington Post he did not know until Thursday that South Carolina would become the first state.
Biden explained in a letter to the committee: He wants economic, geographic and demographic diversity, but most importantly, he wrote, black voters, “who form the backbone of the Democratic Party” , earlier in the process “have a louder voice to vote. He also wants to get rid of the caucuses which, because they assume an assembly, allow limited voting time and are therefore undemocratic. The order of the states would be changed regularly from now on.
There is also another reason why South Carolina comes first. In the 2020 primaries, presidential candidate Biden racked up poor results until he triumphed in South Carolina. He previously finished fourth in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire and second in Nevada. Until then, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg had been the most successful candidates, and Biden’s candidacy seemed doomed. South Carolina didn’t just revive Biden, the state made him the frontrunner once and for all. Observers see the current intervention around South Carolina as a kind of thank you from Biden, and also a signal that he could be a candidate again.
If he runs for president again, David Axelrod told CNN, the new calendar’s message to potential rivals within the party is “Forget it.”
Axelrod, a former campaign manager for candidate Barack Obama and his top adviser when Obama became president, calls it “wise” that the party seek greater diversity early in the electoral process. But at the same time, there was something special about sparsely populated areas where candidates could have almost intimate contact with the people and where an unknown noble candidate could make a name for themselves with relatively little money. Jimmy Carter succeeded in 1976. Obama succeeded in 2007-08. Obama spent 87 days in Iowa. In South Carolina in 2008, it seemed black voters were also rejecting a black presidential candidate as unrealistic. It wasn’t until Obama showed in Iowa that he could convince white voters that they changed their minds.
A state like South Carolina is much bigger and more diverse, making it harder to make a good impression without a lot of money. Biden won’t run out of money with a new candidacy.
This Iowa would die if the first stage of the electoral process was expected. The state had screwed up the vote count in 2020, so it only became clear after a good week that it was not Pete Buttigieg but Bernie Sanders who had won the caucus.
New Hampshire is another matter. There, the primaries are organized by the government, and state law dictates that the primary must be the very first in the country. State (and Iowa) representatives voted against the new schedule in committee, and New Hampshire suggested they would not abide by the order if the party board passed the proposal. They may be subject to sanctions, but the national party cannot prohibit a State Party from deviating from the schedule.
In other states, the party must obtain permission from the state government to change the date. This is the case in Georgia, for example, where Republican Secretary of the Interior Brad Raffensperger and Republican Governor Brian Kemp must give their consent.
In the current proposal, Nevada and New Hampshire, two distant states with no direct connection, have their primaries on the same day. Those primaries take place three days after the South Carolina primary, according to the schedule. This makes it very difficult for candidates to campaign in both states or change their campaign depending on the result in South Carolina.
What about ethanol subsidies?
There’s another problem: so far, the primaries have largely run in parallel for both parties. This proposal breaks the competition, because the Republicans are sticking to the old calendar. In some states with open primaries, like Michigan or South Carolina itself, that can be confusing. In states with an open primary, all voters can decide for themselves which primary they vote in, Democratic or Republican. Primaries on different dates make the process more complicated and unclear, opening up potential avenues for fraud.
Which of the possible candidates, the experts also wondered, will benefit or be harmed by the new regulations? The list of those who benefit from it is currently limited to one: Joe Biden. The consensus is that the left-winger with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren has little chance in South Carolina. Sanders has already bitten his teeth on the state several times, including in 2020. Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, has struggled to win over black voters in the past. In 2020, Biden won 39% of the vote in South Carolina, compared to 15 for Sanders, 8 for Buttigieg and 7 for Warren.
There is also a content aspect to the calendar. Iowa is an agricultural state. The agricultural fair in the capital Des Moines, with fried butter and weight-breaking bulls, was a must for presidential candidates. 40% of the state’s corn production is turned into biofuel, ethanol, and many candidates have pledged their support for substantial subsidies for the ethanol sector, even though they had not done so before ( see Bernie Sanders). Does the new timetable mean that ethanol subsidies will be compromised? What can South Carolina candidates support with pledges?
In February 2023, the full Democratic Party board will meet to approve or adjust the new timeline. At this point, it will be clear what penalties will be applied to local party branches that do not follow the prescribed order, or to candidates running for office in states that deviate from the proposed dates.