Democrats set to vote on presidential primaries and end Iowa's reign as first in the nation

National Democrats are poised to upend decades of political precedent this week as they gather in Washington, D.C., to vote on a new presidential nominating calendar — one that is expected to, finally, bump Iowa from its first-in-the-nation status.

Members of the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee are exploring scenarios that could move New Hampshire or Nevada into the leadoff spot and bring a new state such as Michigan or Minnesota into the early voting window.

Though the outcome is far from certain, few expect Iowa, which has kicked off the presidential nominating process since 1972, to hold its coveted position after a disastrous 2020 caucus in which the party was unable to report results for several days amid a tangle of technology and organizational failures.

The collapse fueled Democrats' rising concerns that the state is too white to represent an increasingly diverse party, prompting the committee to open its review of the calendar and which states vote first.

Those positions are highly sought — and closely guarded — because the opening states draw outsize attention from presidential contenders who meticulously court their voters’ support and bring millions of dollars worth of spending and national media exposure to the state.

The early states also wield immense influence over the trajectory of the nominating process as candidates seek to build momentum or stave off the collapse of their campaigns.

More:Nevada Democrats want to hold the first presidential primary in 2024. Here's why it matters.

The upheaval is expected to have no immediate effect on the Republican calendar, which has already been approved by the Republican National Committee. Iowa is set to again lead that process in 2024.

The Democratic Rules and Bylaws Committee is scheduled to meet Dec. 1-3 to propose and vote on changes to the calendar after choosing in July to delay the politically complicated decision until after November’s midterm elections. A vote could come as soon as Friday.

Though members of the committee have discussed the issue at length over the past year, they have made no public proposals ahead of this week’s meeting. Nor has President Joe Biden publicly weighed in as the leader of the national party.

Still, committee members have made their preferences clear as they’ve considered proposals from more than a dozen states interested in taking over Iowa’s role as the front-runner. They’ve said they prefer states that hold state-run primary elections, have a diverse electorate and are competitive general election battlegrounds.

More:What does it take to be first? These states want to an early place on Democrats' presidential calendar

Any state they select must also be able to legally and quickly move up the date of their presidential primary election.

The result, committee members say, will better align the party with its base and boost Democrats’ chances of taking the White House in 2024 and beyond.

University of Iowa students fill out second preference cards while they caucus, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City, Iowa.
University of Iowa students fill out second preference cards while they caucus, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City, Iowa.

New Hampshire, Nevada compete for first-in-the-nation status

States such as New Hampshire and Nevada, which have traditionally followed Iowa on the calendar, are competing to take over the leadoff spot in 2024 with aggressive pitches.

And newcomers Michigan and Minnesota are angling to join the early window as two Midwestern states with more diverse populations than Iowa's. Committee members have identified the two as possible additions.

Each state is making its case to the committee this week, arguing the 2020 midterm election results prove it is an ideal launching point for the Democratic Party's primary process.

But each state comes with drawbacks.

Nevada and New Hampshire have argued they are clear battleground states after Democratic senators won reelection in both states even as Republicans claimed both governor’s mansions.

People dressed as showgirls walk near the Paris Las Vegas hotel casino on Feb. 19, 2020, site of a Democratic presidential debate, in Las Vegas. If Nevada has one job in the Democratic primary, it's to offer something different. And in many ways it has delivered. As the presidential race turned to the state this week, gone was the earnestness of Iowa and tradition of New Hampshire and in its place was racial diversity, a new unpredictability and the muscle of urban, union politics.

"The 2022 midterm results further underscore that no state is better positioned or would deliver more for the national Democratic Party by holding the First-In-The-Nation presidential primary than Nevada," Nevada Democratic strategist Rebecca Lambe wrote in a memo to the committee circulated just after the midterms. "It is even clearer today that no other state meets every key aspect of the DNC’s own criteria for the early window of diversity, competitiveness, and accessibility except Nevada."

But Nevada also showed in the midterms it is slow to count votes, a key drawback in a nominating process that requires quick tabulation — a lesson underscored by the Democrats' delays in Iowa in 2020.

And New Hampshire, though geographically small and easily traversed by campaigns, has an even less diverse population than Iowa.

Democrats in Michigan won a clean sweep of the state Legislature in November, giving them full control to change the date of their primary election by altering state law — resolving a key concern for the committee. Members of the state Senate made a first run at the issue Tuesday, passing legislation that would move the state's presidential primary from the second Tuesday in March to the second Tuesday in February.

But concerns remain about the cost of competing in such a large state with relatively expensive media markets.

In Minnesota, Democrats also control the levers of government and have promised to change state law to allow for an early primary. Gov. Tim Walz and state legislative leaders wrote a letter to the committee Monday promising to do so.

"As governor and incoming leaders of the Minnesota Senate and House of Representatives, we are committed to swiftly passing and signing into law legislation that would allow for this move to take place," they wrote.

However, Minnesota Democrats face an additional hurdle: They must strike an agreement with Republicans to change the date of the state's presidential primary.

Mo Elleithee, a committee member and the executive director of Georgetown’s Institute of Politics and Public Service, has urged the committee to think broadly about the calendar without being “held hostage to tradition." He has floated “creative” solutions, like allowing New Hampshire and Nevada to hold their primaries on the same day to kick off the calendar.

Walter R. Mears, right, talks with presidential candidate Jimmy Carter in Concord, New Hampshire, before the New Hampshire Primary in 1976.
Walter R. Mears, right, talks with presidential candidate Jimmy Carter in Concord, New Hampshire, before the New Hampshire Primary in 1976.

“That could be something that really sends a strong message to the country,” he said at the committee’s July meeting.

Iowa Democrats make a final pitch to the committee

For their part, Iowa officials haven't given up, lobbying the committee directly in the days ahead of the meeting and issuing a memo Monday night outlining the strengths the state brings to the table.

“It’s critical that small rural states like Iowa have a voice in our presidential nominating process,” Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn wrote. “Democrats cannot abandon an entire group of voters in the heart of the Midwest without doing damage to the party for a generation.”

Democrats in the mostly white state have lost considerable ground to Republicans in recent elections, and Iowa is required by law to hold caucuses instead of primaries. But Iowa Democrats noted that the state has one of the nation’s premier nonpartisan redistricting systems, which has resulted in fair congressional maps that could help Democrats stay competitive in years to come.

Still, Iowa Democratic activists and party leaders concede that retaining any role in the early voting window would be a victory for the state party.

State Auditor Rob Sand, who narrowly won reelection this year and is the lone surviving Democrat elected statewide in Iowa, wrote that the party's lackluster election result "makes it all the more important for Iowa to remain first, or at least early."

"More than ever, Iowans need Democrats to show up, to listen, and to do the work," he wrote.

Potential caucus-goers attend a watch party for the CNN/Des Moines Register Democratic Presidential Debate, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, at Papa Keno's Pizzeria in Des Moines, Iowa.
Potential caucus-goers attend a watch party for the CNN/Des Moines Register Democratic Presidential Debate, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, at Papa Keno's Pizzeria in Des Moines, Iowa.

The DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee is expected to vote on a proposal this week and send it to the full body of the DNC for ratification in the coming months.

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

Francesca Chambers is a White House Correspondent for USA TODAY. Follow her on Twitter at @fran_chambers.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Democrats set to vote on presidential primaries that could bump Iowa