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A Biden-backed shakeup of Democrats' presidential calendar is OK'd by a party panel

President Biden speaks during a White House news conference Thursday.
Susan Walsh
President Biden speaks during a White House news conference Thursday.

Updated December 2, 2022 at 6:26 PM ET

A Democratic committee on Friday approved a proposal, pushed by President Biden, that would upend the party's presidential primary calendar, elevating South Carolina to the first spot, moving the swing states of Georgia and Michigan up to the early slate, and putting Iowa back in the pack.

The president is calling for South Carolina — a state with a sizable Black population, which notably turned around his fortunes in the 2020 race — to go first, followed in the early window by New Hampshire and Nevada, then Georgia and Michigan.

The plan was first reported by The Washington Post Thursday evening and then confirmed by NPR. It was formally approved Friday by a voice vote of members of the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee.

"We feel strongly that this window reflects our values, paints a vibrant picture of our nation, and creates a strong process that will result in the best Democratic nominee," said committee member Minyon Moore of Washington, D.C.

The proposal now goes to the full DNC for ratification early next year.

Biden wants an earlier voice for diverse voters

For decades, presidential hopefuls have faced their first tests with voters in the heavily white states of Iowa and New Hampshire. In a letter to the committee endorsing an overhaul of the calendar, Biden stressed the party's diversity.

"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," Biden wrote.

"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," he wrote. "We rely on these voters in elections but have not recognized their importance in our nominating calendar. It is time to stop taking these votes for granted, and time to give them a louder and earlier voice in the process."

Biden added Democrats should "no longer allow caucuses as part of our nominating process," a foundational principle that the Rules and Bylaws Committee had set in weighing which states to elevate to the early window.

Iowa holds caucuses, and Nevada recently moved away from them.

Biden also called on the committee to review the calendar every four years in order to "ensure that it continues to reflect the values and diversity of our party and country."

New Hampshire says it's still going first

Iowa's Scott Brennan and New Hampshire's Joanne Dowdell were the only two committee members to vote against the early window plan.

"While I support the guiding principles established by this committee and reinforced by the president, I cannot support the proposal before us," Brennan said. "We are now faced with a situation in which no state situated in the Central or Mountain time zone is represented in the pre-window."

He warned: "Small rural states like Iowa must have a voice in our presidential nominating process. Democrats cannot forget about entire groups of voters in the heart of the Midwest, without doing significant damage to the party for a generation."

Dowdell of New Hampshire added she agrees with Biden's "bold statement about his vision for this country [and] the importance of diversity."

"I will, however, say that New Hampshire does have a statute. We do have a law and we will not be breaking our law," she said.

New Hampshire state law gives its secretary of state the power to move up the date of the primary to protect its first-in-the-nation status.

Dowdell's pledge echoes the New Hampshire Democratic Party's vow on Thursday, after news of Biden's preferences broke: "We will be holding our primary first."

"The DNC did not give New Hampshire the first-in-the-nation primary and it is not theirs to take away," NHDP Chair Ray Buckley saidin a statement. "We have survived past attempts over the decades and we will survive this."

New Hampshire's Democratic U.S. senators also opposed Biden's proposal, with Sen. Maggie Hassan writing on Twitter: "Because of our state's small size, candidates from all walks of life — not just the ones with the largest war chests — are able to compete and engage in the unique retail politics that are a hallmark of our state. This ensures that candidates are battle-tested and ready to compete for our nation's highest office."

Hassan also said "New Hampshire's law is clear and our primary will continue to be First in the Nation."

How the DNC aims to enforce its plan

This sets off an interesting dynamic.

The committee approved waivers to allow South Carolina, Nevada, New Hampshire, Georgia and Michigan to hold their primaries in the early window.

The waivers specify the date that each state needs to hold its primary, and are issued on a contingent basis, meaning states must meet the requirements of the waiver in order for them to be able to hold their primary in the early window.

The committee detailed actions the DNC is prepared to take to enforce the waivers and the early state order.

If states don't comply with their waivers, then they are obligated to go in the later primary window. If a state were to hold its primary early anyway, the state would automatically lose half its delegates.

Presidential candidates would also be precluded from campaigning in any state that goes outside the DNC-approved window. The committee noted that in this context, campaigning includes putting a candidate's name on the ballot in that state.

Tom Perez, a former DNC chair, anticipated such a move in an interview with NPR prior to the release of Biden's proposal.

"If the state decides, to heck with what the DNC said, they do that at their peril," he said.

"[Not seating delegates is] a pretty blunt instrument," Perez underscored. "If your delegates don't matter in a convention, you're not going to be very happy as a state."

Long road to change

Chaos erupted in Des Moines, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 2020, as reporters pressed election officials on why the Democratic caucus results were so delayed.
Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Chaos erupted in Des Moines, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 2020, as reporters pressed election officials on why the Democratic caucus results were so delayed.

Criticism of Iowa and New Hampshire's grip on the top two spots of the presidential nominating calendar has been brewing for years.

Many Democrats have long argued the pair don't reflect the party's racial diversity. Technical issues in the 2020 Iowa caucuses that made it difficult to announce a winner only intensified the momentum to adjust the calendar.

In the spring, the DNC approved a resolution that upended the traditional presidential nominating calendar, which places the Iowa caucuses first, followed by primaries in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

The DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee invited states and territories to apply to be considered for the early window of states, and 16 states plus Puerto Rico made formal pitches to the committee over the summer.

The committee was transparent about what it's looking for: demographic diversity, states that have primaries rather than caucuses, election administration, and how competitive a state will be in the general election.

"In the case of the Democratic Party, there is a template that the first four states will represent for the four principal regions of the country," Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told NPR ahead of the DNC's meeting. "And so if Iowa is displaced, then the replacement will have to be another state from the Midwest."

Michigan is fresh off of big election wins for Democrats, with a more diverse population than Iowa.

At Friday's meeting, committee member Ray Curry of Michigan touted what the state's new calendar slot would mean for labor.

"Michigan is the home to more than 500,000 union members," he said. "That's more union members than we had in the early window previously, and it's a game changer for working Americans."

Though as a red state it's not competitive in the general election, South Carolina also had a strong argument to remain in the early window.

"South Carolina was the first opportunity for Black voters who are really the backbone of the Democratic Party to have a meaningful say," Perez said. "So I think one thing that needs to happen is we shouldn't be waiting for until the fourth primary or caucus to have Black voters have their opportunity to be heard."

Nevada was also angling for first place. Advocates point to its growing AAPI and Latino populations, a heavy union presence and a mix of urban and rural areas.

DNC member Yvanna Cancela was part of the team that pitched Nevada to the committee over the summer.

"Nevada has a 24-hour economy, and Democrats over the last decade have done the work to ensure our 24-hour economy doesn't hold people back from having as much access to the ballot box as possible," Cancela previously told NPR, pointing to the state's early voting period, mail-in balloting and same-day voter registration.

"It's also a two-media-market state, which makes it affordable to campaign on airwaves," Cancela said. "We are big enough to truly test a nominee, but we are also small enough for candidates who are more of a long shot to be able to compete."

Perez praised Nevada for passing a law last year establishing it will use a primary in 2024 and not a caucus, which he said guarantees higher participation rates.

"Nevada should be in that early mix," he said. "They should be rewarded for doing that because they are embodying a critical principle of maximizing participation."

Committee member David McDonald of Washington raised a concern about having Nevada and New Hampshire on the same day.

"I think we ought to have some kind of flexibility in the calendar to make those separate days," he said. "I think it's a confusing message to have them on the same day, frankly, and it may dilute the importance of each of the states because they will be in a constant comparison with the other side and getting divided press."

What's the big deal, anyway?

Opening states not only get outsized attention from presidential candidates but also get millions of dollars injected into their economy.

"If you're in an early primary or caucus state and you happen to own a hotel, that's really good news for you," Galston said. "Owning a restaurant is a good thing, if you have a rental car company — you've hit the jackpot. It's not just a week, we're talking about months and months."

Candidates and their campaign staff spend a disproportionate amount of time in early states, which means residents not only benefit economically, they also get to spend more time vetting presidential hopefuls.

Generations of voters in New Hampshire have treated the ability to kick the tires of presidential candidates as their political birthright.

"There's a famous story about a new New Hampshire voter who was asked what he thought of a particular candidate," Galston said. "The voter replied, 'Well, it's too early to say yet, I've only met him three times.' "

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.