Biden Shakes Up the Primary Calendar and Insulates Himself From Challengers

President Biden says he wants the Democrats’ nominating contests to reflect the country’s economic, geographic and demographic diversity. (The Washington Post/Oliver Contreras)

WASHINGTON (The Washington Post) − President Biden had made it abundantly clear that he intends to run for reelection in 2024. Any doubt about that was removed when he surprised members of the Democratic National Committee with a proposal that dramatically reshapes the early primary season calendar and bends it in his favor. Absent a declaration of candidacy, it was the latest signal of a politically engaged president.

The DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee had been deliberating for many months about a new order for the early states, one that already was destined to eliminate Iowa from the list of early contests, but committee members were reluctant to move ahead without input from the leader of the party. When Biden weighed in, he did so with a proposal that calls for more change than anyone outside the White House had been considering.

The old order for the starting weeks of the nominating process went like this: Iowa’s caucuses, followed by New Hampshire’s primary, followed by Nevada’s caucuses, followed by South Carolina’s primary. The new order, adopted on Friday, calls for the first month of the nomination process to go like this: South Carolina, followed three days later by both New Hampshire and Nevada, which would share the second spot on the calendar, followed by Georgia, followed by Michigan. All five contests would be conducted as primaries, and the proposal is contingent on the states meeting the DNC’s requirements.

The Biden plan throws out decades of tradition and addresses complaints that Iowa and New Hampshire, two predominantly White states, are not representative of the country or the party’s diverse coalition. In their defense, Iowa and New Hampshire voters have shown a civic culture over many years – a seriousness that went with their privileged status – that other states have yet to fully develop.

The changes also recognize, directly or indirectly, the degree to which the nominating process has changed in the past decade from one in which voters in the early states, especially the first two, acted as talent spotters for voters in other states to a process that is more nationalized from the start.

As much as anything, the new calendar reflects Biden’s experience in claiming the nomination in 2020. Iowa Democrats plunked him into fourth place (and guaranteed the end of caucuses with a night of disorderly counting). Granite State voters went one better by pushing Biden into fifth place. South Carolina’s Black voters, along with an endorsement from Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), saved his candidacy.

Biden and his advisers deliberated at length before springing the proposal late on Thursday. They shared their thinking with the co-chairs of the Rules and Bylaws Committee, James Roosevelt Jr. and Minyon Moore, but few others. Jamie Harrison, the Democratic National Committee chair and a South Carolinian, did not learn that his state was being moved to the front of the line until Thursday night while attending the state dinner for French President Emmanuel Macron. Harrison spoke emotionally about the changes after they were adopted.

Biden outlined the principles behind his thinking in a letter to Rules and Bylaws Committee members released Thursday evening. He said he wants economic, geographic and demographic diversity, an end to caucuses, and regular reviews in the future of the calendar.

Perhaps most important, he said he believes it is essential to ensure that voters of color “have a voice” earlier in the process and especially noted that Black voters, “the backbone of the Democratic Party,” have previously been “pushed to the back of the early primary process.”

“It is time to stop taking these voters for granted, and time to give them a louder and earlier voice in the process,” Biden said. He also believes there should no longer be caucuses, which have fallen into disfavor because they generally require participants to show up at specified times and as a result are seen as undemocratic.

Those principles happen to align with Biden’s political self-interest. Before last month’s election results, questions were arising within party circles about whether Biden would or should seek a second term, given that he has just turned 80.

The midterm results brought Biden some relief from all the doubting. If it was unlikely before that he would face a primary challenge, the odds of that happening declined more with the proposal he sent to the DNC on Thursday. The plan was a signal that Biden is playing for keeps.

A senior Biden adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share the president’s thinking, said the president always wanted New Hampshire to remain among the early states, believing that it offers a good mix of voters – suburban, rural, working-class and independents. Its status as a general election battleground state adds to its appeal as an early contest.

Biden also concluded that keeping New Hampshire in the second slot was fair, even if it shares the date with Nevada and even if South Carolina replaces Iowa as the first contest. The adviser said that Biden is aware that New Hampshire might jump the line and hopes that it won’t – but that he is prepared to abide by any sanctions the DNC would impose if that were to happen.

Biden wants small and diverse states up front, in part because they require retail campaigning by candidates, an argument for South Carolina going first.

Nevada’s diverse population makes it attractive to move forward in the calendar. Biden and his team believe that one reason Nevada has become a battleground state is because of the decision some cycles ago to put the state among the four early contests. South Carolina is not a battleground state in the general election, which is one complaint that some Democrats voiced privately.

Michigan was the likely Midwestern replacement for Iowa, as the other alternative, Minnesota, is less diverse. Michigan’s diversity and union strength always made it a likely entry.

There were qualms within the party about Michigan because it offers so many delegates that it could unbalance the purpose of the early states. Biden concluded that adding it to the mix made sense but only at the end of the early cycle.

The surprise to many Democrats was Georgia, which Biden added as a fifth early state, in part out of a feeling that it has voted so much in the past two elections that its voters have earned the right to be a part of the early process, and also because of its status as an emerging and important battleground for Democrats.

Biden is not the first Democratic president to meddle with the nomination process. Elaine Kamarck, a member of the Rules and Bylaws Committee and an encyclopedia about the nominating process, reminded everyone on Friday that ahead of the 1980 election, President Jimmy Carter, anticipating a challenge from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), worked with some governors to bring a group of friendly Southern states forward in the calendar.

The Biden plan initially drew sharp protests. New Hampshire’s entire Democratic delegation – its two senators and two members of the House – condemned it and vowed that the state would adhere to its law, which says that New Hampshire must hold its primary a week before any other state. Iowans registered similar dismay, although they had known they were in trouble.

Nevada Democrats had lobbied hard to become the first primary state, jointly with New Hampshire if necessary. They, too, were dismayed by Biden’s proposal.

By Friday afternoon, after a lengthy closed-door lunch, the committee quickly approved the new calendar. The only dissenting votes came from representatives from Iowa and New Hampshire. But the jockeying for position is far from over.

Every expectation is that New Hampshire will refuse to abide by the new rules and will try to move its primary ahead of every other scheduled contest. Iowa could do the same. Both would face penalties for doing so, and DNC members believe those would be severe enough to prompt candidates to stay away from both contests.

The vote on Friday also was a first step. States have to demonstrate by early next year that they can meet the terms or they risk losing their position.

Meanwhile, Republicans in both states have vowed to follow their own rules, which means the two parties could have considerably different opening stages of their nomination contests.

The changes bring an end to a long tradition. For 2024, they might have few consequences, if Biden is the lone candidate for the Democratic nomination. But in future years they will bring a new look, new challenges and new strategies for Democratic presidential aspirants, with unforeseen consequences. For now, Boss Biden has flexed his muscles as the leader of the party and the party has fallen in line.

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