The debate over Biden's primary shakeup plan

President Biden.
President Biden. Illustrated | Getty Images

The Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee last week approved a shakeup of the party's 2024 primary calendar, bumping Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's primary out of their traditional lead-off spots and putting South Carolina's primary first. New Hampshire and Nevada, then Georgia and Michigan are scheduled to go next. The Democrats have been discussing changing the primary schedule for months, but President Biden shocked party and state leaders last week by proposing the lineup with South Carolina (a state that gave his faltering campaign a boost in 2020) getting the voting started.

The plan ignited infighting, with Biden and the rules committee members who backed up his plan arguing that South Carolina should go first because it better reflects the racial diversity of the party and the nation. It's 68 percent white, 27 percent Black, 6 percent Latino or Hispanic, and 2 percent Asian. While roughly 40 percent of Democrats are non-white, Iowa and New Hampshire are 90 percent and nearly 93 percent white, respectively. But Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and some of his allies say it makes no sense to give South Carolina the power to decide what candidate starts the primaries with the early momentum, because it is a solidly red state with Democrats who are more conservative than most of the party. Is the shakeup good for the party, or just for Biden?

This is the right thing to do

"Even before becoming president, Joe Biden, like other Democratic politicians, had often touted the important role Black voters play in the Democratic Party," says The Seattle Times in an editorial. Bumping Iowa from the front position in the Democratic presidential nominating contests "makes good sense" because it corrects a wrong and gives Black Democrats, and people of all demographic groups, something closer to an equal voice.

Biden was right when he said, "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." South Carolina "more aptly reflect[s] the make-up of the party and the nation." Iowa didn't help its claim to the lead-off spot after its "embarrassing 2020 debacle when it failed to count votes in a timely manner."

Biden is doing this for himself

"Moving the first caucus to South Carolina is a very big, public thank-you note" to the state for rescuing his campaign in 2020, says the Boston Herald in an editorial. The House majority whip, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), is a huge figure in South Carolina politics, and he "saved Biden's bacon in the 2020 election" by endorsing the former vice president, whose campaign was faltering after a weak start in the earlier contests. "Clyburn is widely credited with giving Biden's campaign a much-needed power surge."

This shift clearly helps Biden, who insists he's running again in 2024. But the shakeup will do the party no good. By dissing Iowa, Democrats are sending "one more signal that Democrats are no longer the party of working-class Americans." State party leaders in flyover states might have to accept this "decree from on high," but voters don't. "Democrats just gave middle America a clear message: your issues don't matter all that much." The party will pay for this snub at the polls.

Pushing Iowa back was long overdue

It's "easy to write off the choice of South Carolina" as a reward for the state that turned around Biden's 2020 campaign, says The Boston Globe in an editorial, but this shakeup is "long overdue." The fact that Iowa's "quirky caucuses" have always gone first is no reason to keep things the same. As Biden noted, caucuses make it hard for hourly workers to participate in the nominating process, because they require voters to spend a lot of time caucusing, squeezing out people whose jobs and other circumstances don't allow them a ton of flexibility. That's "anti-participatory," as Biden put it, and no way to run a democracy.

Still, "even with Biden's backing, change won't be easy." There's still the question of splitting the Democratic and Republican schedules, if the GOP doesn't "follow suit." And there's "the thorny problem posed by New Hampshire state law which demands that its presidential primary be held before any other 'similar contest,'" which could result in penalties for New Hampshire's delegates if the state doesn't change its primary date. "In a perfect world, a system of rotating regional primaries long espoused by the National Association of Secretaries of State would provide the kind of fairness the presidential nominating process merits. But in this far-from-perfect world, the rotation being proposed by Democratic Party officials offers good regional balance and a level of voter diversity that [has] been sorely lacking."

This helps all Democrats, not just Biden

By increasing early participation, this shakeup "reshapes candidate talking points and ensures the issues Latino and Black voters care most about aren't treated as garnish," says LZ Granderson in the Los Angeles Times. That's huge. "Think about it: President Clinton nicknamed himself the 'comeback kid' after finishing second in New Hampshire," then took "80 percent of the Black vote in the South on Super Tuesday, all but vanquishing Paul Tsongas, who had finished first in New Hampshire." Had those primaries started in more diverse states, Clinton would have been the early favorite.

Obviously, the same math would have helped Biden in 2020, and might again in 2024, But even if Biden decides not to run for re-election, these changes will help all Democrats by forcing the field of candidates to "focus on courting Latino and Black voters," who are so important to Democratic enthusiasm and turnout, "at the beginning of the process, as opposed to later." Candidates who win in South Carolina and Nevada will have a lot of delegates, in addition to the buzz that comes with early victories. "That helps with fundraising and media coverage." It also could allow "a different kind of candidate" to emerge, one who might "address issues such as immigration beyond the same old tired platitudes but also without alienating working-class white voters."

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