Why Democrats want to change the primary calendar

2024 Calendar
2024 Calendar Illustrated | Gettyimages
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For generations, Iowa and New Hampshire have led off the presidential nominating season — Iowa with its first-in-the-nation caucuses, and New Hampshire with its primary election. Perhaps no longer. President Biden has asked the Democratic National Committee to shake up its calendar and put South Carolina at the head of the pack, and the DNC has approved.

"For the .000001 percent of people who follow this stuff, this is equivalent to an earthquake," Julián Castro, who ran in the Democratic primaries, told The New York Times. But this isn't just for political junkies — the shuffling of states could have a real impact on what kind of candidates Democrats back in future elections. Why is the calendar likely changing, and what would it mean for future elections? Here's everything you need to know:

Why is the calendar changing?

Race. Iowa is 90 percent white, and New Hampshire is at nearly 93 percent — but 4 in 10 Democratic voters are nonwhite. Advocates for changing the Democratic calendar say the nominating process should be weighted toward states whose demographics look more like the party, and the country for that matter. "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 a letter to Democratic National Committee, and added: "It is time to stop taking these voters for granted, and time to give them a louder and earlier voice in the process."

It should be noted, though, that Iowa made the decision easier with its clumsy handling of the 2020 caucuses. Pete Buttigieg eventually won that contest, but the results were certified nearly a month after the caucuses were held.

Why is South Carolina at the head of the line?

The Palmetto State holds a special place in Biden's heart — it's where his faltering campaign finally picked up momentum in 2020, thanks in large part to an endorsement from U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.). Biden's 2020 primary victory in South Carolina "kickstarted his presidential campaign after poor finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire," The Associated Press reports, and ultimately led to his claiming the Democratic nomination over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). The Times points out that Biden's support of the plan is "perhaps the most telling indicator that he planned to seek re-election" despite his advanced age.

What do other Democrats think?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sanders' campaign manager from 2020 has come out against the new plan. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Faiz Shakir argues South Carolina is too conservative to pick the Democratic nominee. "South Carolina is not a battleground state," he notes. "Mr. Trump carried it by double digits in 2020." And at The New Republic, Walter Shapiro notes the state's Black voters tend to be more moderate than much of the Democratic coalition — which means the new calendar will "lessen the odds that future versions of Bernie Sanders will get liftoff in the early Democratic primaries." Despite these objections, the DNC is expected to approve the new calendar.

Will Iowa and New Hampshire go along with this plan?

Maybe not. As Ben Jacobs notes at Vox, while state law determines when states hold their nominating contests, "national parties are fully within their rights to sanction states that don't follow their rules" and could simply refuse to recognize the results from states that don't take their turn. Would the Democratic Party actually refuse to recognize delegates from Iowa and New Hampshire if those states try to maintain their first-place status? We may find out.

USA Today points out that New Hampshire has a state law requiring it to hold a presidential primary at least seven days earlier than any other state. "We will always hold the first in the nation primary, and this status is independent of the president's proposal or any political organization," U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) said in a statement. Iowa, too, has promised to stick with its first-in-the-nation status.

What are Republicans going to do?

For now, at least, they're still planning to stick with Iowa and New Hampshire leading the pack.

What does this mean beyond 2024?

As dramatic as it is, the calendar shake-up might be a one-off. The Washington Post reports that Biden is only asking for the new calendar to apply to 2024. After that: Who knows? "The Rules and Bylaws Committee should review the calendar every four years, to ensure that it continues to reflect the values and diversity of our party and our country," the president wrote in his letter to the DNC. After generations of stability in the primary calendar, we may be seeing these debates every four years going forward.

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