Biden recommends South Carolina go first in Democratic primary process, replacing Iowa

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WASHINGTON — 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.

Scott Brennan, a member of the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee from Iowa confirmed the proposed changes Thursday. The committee met privately in Washington before committee leaders are expected to brief DNC members at public meetings Friday.

"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."

More: Democrats to vote on new presidential calendar, likely ending Iowa's first-in-the-nation status

President Joe Biden speaks during the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, at the Ronald Reagan Building, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, in Washington.
President Joe Biden speaks during the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, at the Ronald Reagan Building, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, in Washington.

The moves would displace Iowa from its long-held 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 presidents.

South Carolina, although not a battleground state in general elections, holds a special place politically for Biden, having given him a crucial victory in the 2020 Democratic primary after he lost primaries and caucuses in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

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

“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. “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.”

New Hampshire, Nevada Dems push back at Biden's proposed order

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.

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

Democrats in New Hampshire — which has a state law mandating it hold the nation's first primary election — vowed their state will vote first regardless of what the DNC decides.

“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 said. "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. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., said she is "disappointed" by Biden's recommendations, pointing to her state's "long and proud tradition" of holding the nation's first presidential primary. She said New Hampshire's size, geography and strong political participation make it "perfectly situated" to go first.

“Regardless of today’s events, New Hampshire will still host the first in the nation primary in accordance with our state law," Kuster said.

Nevada's two Democratic U.S. senators, Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, slammed Biden's recommendation for not elevating Nevada to first in the calendar.

They issued a joint statement saying the first presidential nominating contest should be held in a "competitive, pro-labor state that supports voting access and reflects all of America’s diversity – in other words, a state that actually aligns with the DNC’s own priorities for updating the calendar."

The Nevada senators said Biden's proposal disregards those priorities and "instead elevates a state that doesn’t meet the criteria to start off this process."

Minnesota Democrats pushed for their state to be added as an early primary state but appeared likely to lose out to another Midwest state: Michigan.

Ken Martin, chairman of the Minnesota Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party, said while he's disappointed his state won't be chosen, he congratulated Michigan. "I recognize how difficult this decision was," Martin said.

Chaotic 2020 caucuses doomed Iowa

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.

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.  

Iowa has also turned redder politically, making it increasingly difficult for Democrats to compete in general elections. Iowa will have no Democratic members in the next Congress after last month's midterm election, and the last president to carry the state was Barack Obama in 2012.

“Small rural states like Iowa must have a voice in our presidential nominating process," Iowa Democratic Party chairman Ross Wilburn said in a statement. "Democrats cannot forget about entire groups of voters in the heart of the Midwest without doing significant damage to the party for a generation."

Wilburn added it's "disappointing to see a characterization of caucuses" that doesn't consider the party's planned shift to a simplified vote-by-mail process in its 2024 caucuses.

With South Carolina in the leadoff role and two new states in the mix, that 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.

Trav Robertson, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said Democrats are spread across the state, rather than concentrated in one urban area, making it a strong choice to vote first.

"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, he said.

Robertson called Biden's recommendation that South Carolina go first in primary voting "significant" but acknowledged the ultimate decision rests with the DNC.

Iowa still expected to vote first in Republican primary

The DNC's moves are 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.

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.

But committee members have made clear since they began meeting in January that it would be difficult for Iowa to make its case.

They’ve said they prefer states that hold state-run primary elections over caucuses, have a diverse electorate and are competitive general election battlegrounds. States must also be able to legally and quickly move the date of the primary elections, they said.

"While there are some benefits to caucuses, I think it is hard to argue that primaries don't bring more voices into the process. And I think that is a key value of the Democratic Party," DNC member Mo Elleithee said in the committee’s first meeting.

In April the committee approved a plan requiring states to submit applications to hold a nominating contest in the early voting window before Super Tuesday. It also said it would accept as many as five states into that window. For years, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina held those coveted positions.

Committee members heard presentations in June from more than a dozen states and territories that submitted applications.

Nevada and New Hampshire made particularly impassioned cases, expressly arguing that they should take over as the first primary state. Others, like Michigan and Minnesota, pushed to join the early window for the first time.

But the committee chose to delay its decision, originally slated for August, until after the November midterm elections.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden proposes putting South Carolina first in primary process, bumping Iowa