WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn was preparing to attend a state dinner at the White House for the visiting French president when he got a call from Joe Biden.
The president wanted to tell the South Carolina Democrat personally that he was recommending Clyburn's home state move to the front of the presidential primary calendar, making it the party's premier contest.
“That's the first I heard of it,” Clyburn said.
The veteran Democratic lawmaker thanked the president and said he looked forward to seeing him at the state dinner an hour later.
At a hotel across town on Thursday, members of the Democratic National Committee with authority over the calendar were gathering for a smaller, more intimate dinner before two days of planned negotiations about which states could hold primaries before Super Tuesday and in what order.
It was then that DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee members learned from panel co-chairs James Roosevelt and Minyon Moore that Biden wanted South Carolina — the first state he won in 2020 — to hold the first primary and had proposed ousting Iowa and its caucus from the early window altogether.
Biden also proposed that New Hampshire and Nevada share a single primary date and recommended that Michigan and Georgia hold earlier contests.
They were given paper copies of a letter from Biden laying out the principles behind his decision. Biden told panel members to prioritize Black voters who delivered the presidency to him and states that are racially diverse.
“South Carolina is a state that is near and dear to his heart,” Moore said in an interview. “And I know, once you start signaling to the broader public that Black folks are important, these candidates will have to look at that throughout their entire campaign process.”
Conversations about Biden’s recommendations with 18 people involved in the frenzy indicate they were a surprise to the DNC panel’s members, with the exception of the committee’s co-chairs. Biden told them of his preferences in a call Wednesday. Chairs of state parties affected by the plan said they learned of Biden’s letter from reporters. Multiple state party officials said they were not contacted by the White House.
DNC Chair Jaime Harrison was also left in the dark. He was not told which way the president was leaning, people with direct knowledge of the conversations said, to avoid any perceptions he would put his thumb on the scale. Harrison is from South Carolina and was once the state’s party chair.
"The president talked to the committee co-chairs about it, which is the right process,” Roosevelt, the national committee’s other co-chair, said in an interview.
Harrison told committee members that his wife commandeered his iPhone the night of the state dinner, and he missed calls from Democratic officials trying to give him a heads-up on Biden’s decision before the letter went public.
White House deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon, with whom he’d spoken on Tuesday about the primary calendar, found Harrison at the gala and told him Biden had proposed that the DNC chair’s home state be the first to vote.
“I was stuffing my mouth with a shrimp,” Harrison told DNC members later. “Folks, I was emotional.”
A teary-eyed Harrison reminded party officials he was the first Black person to chair the South Carolina Democratic Party and spoke passionately about his grandmother, who he said picked cotton and cleaned houses, and his grandfather, who paved roads, after the committee approved the president’s proposal.
A round of calls before black-tie dinner
“In America, these people have often been forgotten, many times voiceless and voteless,” he said, “particularly those in states like South Carolina.”
O’Malley Dillon had broken the primary calendar news to a handful of lawmakers earlier in the evening. She made a round of calls shortly before the black-tie dinner Biden held on Thursday night in honor of visiting French President Emmanuel Macron.
She declined to comment on Biden’s letter, which USA TODAY had obtained, as she walked the red carpet at the state dinner.
Elaine Kamarck, an at-large member of the DNC who sits on the rules committee, said in an interview that she was unaware of Biden’s letter when she arrived at the dinner with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.
“I was joking with Steny,” she recalled, “I was saying, will you be embarrassed if I go up to the president and say, 'Hey, Mr. President, how am I supposed to vote tomorrow?'”
Kamarck never had to ask the president her question. When she reached the party tent where politicians and celebrities were hobnobbing on the South Lawn, Kamarck said she ran into White House chief of staff Ron Klain and he told her about Biden’s decision.
Committee members knew Biden could offer a proposal, and some hoped that he would, amid intraparty squabbling over which state gets to hold its primary first.
Moore said the committee’s chairs gave the president recommendations, which included South Carolina potentially moving up, and Biden made the call about early-window states and the order.
“He’s the titular head of the party. You get that privilege when you're the titular head of the party — he gets to recommend to us,” Moore said. “And he recommended a strategy that we felt very, very good about.”
Iowa fought to keep its caucus in the early window after promising changes to its voting system that would speed up counting and make its process more equitable.
New Hampshire insisted it was bound by a state law requiring it to have the nation’s earliest primary, while Nevada was pushing hard for its union-friendly and Latino-heavy state to top the calendar.
“The president's timing of when he weighed in made the process smoother to ultimately approve the plan, because it was also understood that the president had been apprised throughout the whole process of everything that was being said,” Maria Cardona, a member of the panel from D.C., said.
Committee co-chairs presented Biden’s proposal, and then panel members stood up and delivered remarks, as if it was the floor of the U.S. Congress, attendees of the dinner recalled.
Among those who spoke was former acting DNC chair Donna Brazile, who began by talking about Rosa Parks defying tradition by refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man in 1955.
Brazile spoke of her experience serving on the commission that recommended moving Nevada and South Carolina to the early window ahead of the 2008 presidential primary and the significance of candidates hearing from a diverse set of voters.
“I look forward to seeing them go to an SEC game versus a Big Ten game. I mean, this is important,” Brazile, who was former vice president Al Gore’s campaign manager, said in an interview.
The calendar dispute mostly was settled by the end of the nearly four-hour dinner, and by breakfast, all but a few members of the panel had gotten on board.
“There was never any doubt that we were going to follow the president's proposal,” Kamarck said. “The issue remaining was the placing of New Hampshire and Nevada on the same day.”
That proposal was pushed by Mo Elleithee, a D.C. member of the panel, as a way to resolve the dispute over which state goes first.
Some committee members worried candidates would campaign in New Hampshire, which is smaller and easier to travel to from Washington, and bypass Nevada altogether, with primaries in Georgia and Michigan slated to be held later in the month.
Hearing Biden’s views “provided a lot of more clarity” to the committee, Elleithee said.
“From there, it just became an 'All right, do we have any issues with this? And if not, how do we execute it?' And that's really where the conversations went from there."
Georgia was one of the biggest surprises
Georgia’s elevation was one of the biggest shockers of the calendar shakeup followed by South Carolina.
Sen. Raphael Warnock was about to take the stage at a rally with former President Barack Obama in support of his candidacy in Tuesday’s runoff election when Democratic Party officials in Georgia learned of Biden’s proposal.
Clyburn said he spoke to Biden earlier in the year about keeping South Carolina, which has a large Black population but is not a battleground state, in the early window. He emphasized the state’s track record of picking presidents.
Obama won the state’s primary in 2008, the first year that it was held toward the front of the calendar. South Carolina proved decisive after Iowa and New Hampshire delivered split decisions, with Obama prevailing in Iowa and Clinton narrowly winning New Hampshire.
Biden’s victory in South Carolina revived his campaign after losing Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.
"We have to look at who you depend upon to win the presidency," Clyburn said in an interview. "You give the kind of credence to the voters that you got to impress to win the general election. And I suspect that Georgia earned their way in after delivering that state and two Democratic senators. Who would have ever thought Georgia would produce two Democratic senators? Georgia? One Black, one Jewish? Come on. Nobody would have ever thought that."
Pushback from Iowa, New Hampshire
New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said White House aides called before the state dinner to let her know of Biden’s decision. She said it was clear then that it was a done deal, and the president’s opinion would influence members of the Rules and Bylaws Committee.
Shaheen said the party could accomplish what it wanted without putting New Hampshire in a position of violating a long-held state law if it held its primary later.
“It's very clear that Republicans are going to make a big issue out of it. And we know there's going to be a contested Republican primary, and there are going to be a lot of candidates up here,” Shaheen said. “So there's going to be a lot of attention on the Republican side, and it's unfortunate that the Rules and Bylaws Committee doesn't want to allow for that kind of attention on the Democratic side for our candidates.”
Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn said he learned about Biden’s letter through social media posts and spent the rest of his Thursday evening responding to texts and phone calls.
“I have the utmost respect for President Biden. I'm disappointed that how caucuses were presented didn’t reflect the bold proposal that we put forward, and continue to put forward, to reenvision our caucus process to make it the most inclusive in the country,” Wilburn said.
Wilburn said he supports the president’s efforts to elevate diverse voices but took issue with the fact that none of the early states is as rural as Iowa. None is in the central time zone in its entirety, he argued. Some parts of Michigan are in central time, but much of the state is in the eastern zone.
Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., rejected arguments that Michigan, a state more than three times the size of Iowa, wasn't well suited to retail politics.
“They’re going to be in union halls. They're going to be at farms. They're going to be at farmers markets. They're going to be at ice carvings. They're going to eat coney dogs. They may walk the Mackinac Bridge. They're going to see the diversity of this country that votes and makes the decision on Election Day.”
Dingell has pushed for Michigan to vote earlier for roughly three decades. It’s a swing state with a diverse electorate and by having it in the early window, Dingell said, Democratic candidates will have to delve into issues of importance to the general electorate such as trade.
The full DNC membership will vote on whether to finalize the new calendar at a meeting on Feb. 2-4 in Philadelphia. If approved, it will apply only to the 2024 cycle. Before its ouster, Iowa had led the lineup since 1972.
Biden has signaled plans to make an announcement about his political future early next year.
Although he has not launched a 2024 presidential bid, DNC committee members said they largely viewed his direction on the primary calendar as a sign he plans to run.
“If Biden runs for reelection, this will not matter at all,” Clyburn said. “I am all in for Joe Biden. And South Carolinians are all in for Joe Biden.”
Francesca Chambers is a White House Correspondent for USA TODAY. Follow her on Twitter at @fran_chambers.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden takes Democrats by surprise with primary lineup putting SC first