Biden wants South Carolina, not Iowa, first in shakeup of presidential selection process

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Joe Biden is recommending a massive overhaul of the presidential nominating calendar, calling for South Carolina to replace Iowa in the leadoff position and elevate Michigan and Georgia into the mix.

Biden has proposed that South Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Georgia and Michigan make up the early voting window.

"Our party should no longer allow caucuses as part of our nominating process," Biden said in a letter dated Dec. 1 to the committee. "We must ensure that voters of color have a voice in choosing our nominee much earlier in the process and throughout the entire early window."

LIVEFollow Friday updates as Democrats debate a new presidential primary calendar, ousting Iowa from first-in-the-nation

Scott Brennan, a member of the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee confirmed the proposed changes to the Des Moines Register Thursday night. The committee met privately in Washington, D.C., before public meetings began Friday where the committee leaders briefed the members.

"These are only recommendations, and we will continue to fight for Iowa's place in the nominating process," Brennan said.

Brennan said the proposal was a "complete kick in the teeth."

"I'm very surprised. No courtesy of a call from the White House, to, frankly any member of the committee," he said. "The Washington Post had it before the committee did. So, you know, it says something to me about the process."

The moves would displace Iowa from its decades-long position at the front of the line and elevate new voices into the early voting window — a decision that, if approved, would upend 50 years of political precedent and remake the way America picks its president.

The DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, which meets through Saturday in Washington, D.C., still needs to approve the proposal before it can head to a vote of the full DNC early next year.

Mo Elleithee, a member of the committee and the executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service, said he was glad the proposal doesn't rest on tradition.

"I think it is an elegant proposal," he said. "Whether or not it's the final proposal, we'll see. But I think it is a really good starting point, and I give the White House a lot of credit for coming up with it. At the end of the day, though, the decision is going to be made not by the White House but by the party."

But dissent is already stirring. New Hampshire, which has a state law mandating it hold the nation's first primary election, is saying it will go rogue in order to hold onto its position.

“The DNC did not give New Hampshire the first-in-the-nation primary, and it is not theirs to take away," New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley released the following statement. "This news is obviously disappointing, but we will be holding our primary first. We have survived past attempts over the decades and we will survive this."

U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-New Hampshire, called Biden's proposal "misguided."

"New Hampshire's law is clear and our primary will continue to be first in the nation," Hassan said. "New Hampshire does democracy better than anywhere else."

Iowa caucuses fall out of favor with Democrats

Since 1972, Iowa has wielded unparalleled influence in that process, drawing presidential contenders of every stripe to campaign across the state for months and participate in its first-in-the-nation caucuses. Made famous by Jimmy Carter in 1976, Iowa has acted as a proving ground for would-be presidents to test their mettle, courting votes one by one under intense media scrutiny.

But in recent years, Iowa has come under fire from critics who argue that its population, which is overwhelmingly white, is not representative of the nation at large, making it ill-equipped to hold such an important role in the nominating process.

Criticism intensified when Iowa Democrats failed to report accurate, timely results from their 2020 caucuses, adding fuel to those underlying concerns and undermining the public’s confidence in the state.  

With South Carolina in the leadoff role and two new states in the mix, the power dynamic would shift in a way that committee members say gives a greater voice to people who have traditionally been marginalized in the electoral process. Elevating those voices is key to ensuring the Democratic Party represents the changing face of the electorate, they say.

Though the decision would be a blow for Iowa, few expected the state to hold onto its position after its 2020 debacle. Iowa Democratic activists and party leaders conceded that retaining any role in the early voting window would have been a victory for the state party.

Brennan said Iowa would also consider defying the DNC if this proposal is ultimately approved.

A group of caucus-goers who's candidates did not meet the minimum support in the first round organize to officially support Cory Booker at the Precinct 38 inside Drake University on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.
A group of caucus-goers who's candidates did not meet the minimum support in the first round organize to officially support Cory Booker at the Precinct 38 inside Drake University on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.

"That'll be up to the State Central Committee and our political leadership. But right now, my recommendation would be that we dispute this," he said.

Biden also proposed revisiting the calendar every four years "to ensure that it continues to reflect the values and diversity of our party and our country."

South Carolina holds special place for Biden

South Carolina has been politically important for Biden, giving him a crucial victory in the 2020 Democratic primary after he lost contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada and his candidacy appeared to be hanging on by a thread.

Above all, it was Biden’s strong support among Black voters that carried him in the heavily African-American South Carolina and propelled him to wins in subsequent states.

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.
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.

“For decades, Black voters, in particular, have been the backbone of the Democratic Party but have been pushed to the back of the early primary process,” Biden said in the letter to the DNC rules committee. “We rely on these voters in elections but have not recognized their importance in our nominating calendar. It is time to stop taking these voters for granted, and time to give them a louder and earlier voice in the process.”

Trav Robertson, chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, told USA TODAY there is no question South Carolina helped propel Biden to the presidency.

He said Democrats in South Carolina are not confined to a single county or geographic region, but instead are spread across the state.

"Sixty to 65% of traditional Democratic voters are spread throughout every single county in the state of South Carolina, which means that you have a mix of urban traditional, Democratic voters and rural, traditional Democratic voters," he said. "And that's why we've been successful in not only picking the eventual nominee, but the eventual President of the United States from the Democratic Party."

Michigan and Georgia would bring new voices to early window

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, who has been fighting to move Michigan ahead in the primary calendar for decades said she hammered away at insisting that a diverse Midwestern state play a key role in the nominating process.

"This president knows any road to the White House goes through the heartland," she said Thursday after Biden made his recommendations. Dingell also agreed with the president's suggestion that the calendar be revisited every four years.

"No state should have a lock" on going first, she said.

She said she expects Biden's backing will help persuade the Rules and Bylaws Committee to approve the proposed order. But she said that even if the committee approves it, its outcome will be uncertain until it goes before the full Democratic National Committee early next year.

"We still have a big fight ahead of us," she said.

In its bid to join the early voting window, Michigan's delegation pitched the state as “the nation’s most diverse battleground,” home to key demographic groups that Democrats need in order to win the presidency, including labor groups, college students, and white working class and educated suburban voters.

The delegation emphasized the large number of Black and Muslim voters, both in rural communities and around Detroit.

U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, Georgia made its pitch to the committee in June, arguing that her state "reflects the diversity that has been championed by the Democratic Party."

Former state party executive director Scott Hogan argued that choosing Georgia as an early state would demonstrate the party's commitment to the voters who helped deliver the battleground state in the 2020 presidential election and the U.S. Senate majority in the 2021 runoffs. The presentation also touted the work of Democrats in the state on voter protection.

Members of the committee expressed concerns about the restrictive voting legislation passed in the state and the possibility that Republicans will continue to hold the Secretary of State's office and win back U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock's seat in November.

Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger won reelection, and Warnock is moving to a run-off election this month against Republican Herschel Walker.

'Jockeying' could still be ahead as logistical challenges surface

Even if the committee approves the proposal, a tangle of state laws and logistical challenges could still derail the calendar from actually coming to fruition in 2024.

Both Iowa and New Hampshire have state laws on the books requiring Iowa to hold the nation's first presidential caucus and New Hampshire the nation's first primary. New Hampshire has said unequivocally that it plans to uphold that law, and Iowa officials may also choose to defy the DNC.

"Our state law requires us to hold a caucus before the last Tuesday in February, and before any other contest," Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn said in a statement. "When we submit our delegate selection plan to the Rules and Bylaws Committee early next year, we will adhere to the State of Iowa’s legal requirements, and address compliance with DNC rules in subsequent meetings and hearings.”

Other states will need to work with their state Legislatures to move the dates of their primary contests. Georgia in particular may face challenges. The state's Legislature and governor's mansion are controlled by Republicans.

President George Bush emphasizes a point during his speech to members of the Portsmouth N.H., Rotary Club at a local restaurant in Portsmouth, N.H., Jan. 15, 1992. Bush made his first campaign visit to New Hampshire, Wednesday, the sight of the nation's earliest presidential primary. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook)
President George Bush emphasizes a point during his speech to members of the Portsmouth N.H., Rotary Club at a local restaurant in Portsmouth, N.H., Jan. 15, 1992. Bush made his first campaign visit to New Hampshire, Wednesday, the sight of the nation's earliest presidential primary. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook)

The decision is not expected to immediately affect the order of Republican primaries, which have already been set for 2024 with Iowa at the front. But it does open the door to future jockeying between states as the GOP wrangles with the implications for their own early contests.

State parties typically hold their primary elections on the same day. If Democrats' calendar clashes with Republicans', it could create logistical difficulties for both parties.

"There's a lot more discussion to be had, and certainly more jockeying to probably be done among the early states," Brennan said.

Republican Party of Iowa Chair Jeff Kaufmann also suggested the decision would cause major disruptions.

"This is an unserious alternative from an unserious president," he said in a statement to the Register. "The DNC and Joe Biden have just kicked off utter chaos. This is just a recommendation, and the fight is not over."

Brianne Pfannenstiel is the chief politics reporter for the Register. Reach her at bpfann@dmreg.com or 515-284-8244. Follow her on Twitter at @brianneDMR.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Biden seeks overhaul of presidential nominating calendar, bumping Iowa