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Analysis

Nevada Democrats just passed a law taking aim at the New Hampshire primary. But infighting and other circumstances might spare it

People arrive to check-in at a caucus site in Las Vegas.
People arrive to check-in at a caucus site in Las Vegas.Erin Schaff/The New York Times

For those who like New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary, it has been an anxious past 18 months.

First, Iowa — long the Granite State’s partner in the first-in-the-nation duopoly — embarrassed itself so badly last year that it seemed like the state would never hold early caucuses again, and even take down all early states like New Hampshire along with it. Then Joe Biden became the Democratic presidential nominee. He not only finished fifth in New Hampshire’s presidential primary, but he even left the state before the votes were counted. This suggested that not only did the party’s eventual leader hold no love for the state’s primary, but Biden’s astonishing comeback called into question a fundamental premise: like it or not, the New Hampshire primary plays huge a role in picking the nominee.

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On top of it all was a shift in consciousness in America last year — particularly within the Democratic Party — towards dismantling all forms of white supremacy. Some, including the sitting vice president, have wondered whether the disproportionately white voting population in New Hampshire was part of that.

Fast forward to Friday in Nevada where lawmakers passed a law changing the caucus system to a primary, and adding a goal of deposing New Hampshire as the nation’s first primary.

It begins in Nevada,” the state’s governor, Democrat Steve Sisolak declared as he signed a bill into law that places a Nevada presidential primary a week ahead of the date New Hampshire held its primary in 2020. (Over the years, the date of the New Hampshire primary has moved around from mid-March to early January, but Nevada has voted right after New Hampshire since 2008.)

However, if one pays very close attention, there are signs that at least for the near term, things will just be fine for the New Hampshire primary for the foreseeable future.

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To start, the Nevada law actually does nothing except spark more conversation on the topic. As implied in the law, states individually decide when they hold their presidential primary contests, though national political parties can create incentives for states to work within specific guidelines.

A good number of states have passed similar laws in the past with eyes on the Granite State. But the unique, nimble nature of how New Hampshire’s date is set and how the primary is run gives it great advantages. Indeed, in the past, just one person, New Hampshire’s Secretary of State, has picked an exact date just a few months in advance of the primary season, leapfrogging any other state.

Next, consider state politics in Nevada which is full of infighting that suggests the state is in no position to take on a huge fight to dethrone a century-old tradition. Nevada Democrats are at war with each other. The Bernie Sanders wing just led a coup to topple the Harry Reid machine at the state level. That led to unprecedented action this week when the more Reid-aligned Democrats from the state’s second-biggest county officially stopped coordinating with the state party ahead of the midterm elections.

Then there are the Nevada Republicans. While, yes, they are dealing with some members of the Proud Boys trying to win seats on important local party committees, the fact is the state Republican Chair just dismissed Nevada’s first in the nation effort in a statement last week, respecting New Hampshire’s role.

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Further, the Biden administration hasn’t suggested it really cares at all about this question. Last year, the COVID pandemic sidelined the issue at the Democratic National Convention, when many expected it to come up. No one from the administration has said one word about changing things up since.

In fact, many New Hampshire politicos were very relieved to see that Vice President Harris came to the state for a visit this spring. Reviving the traditional role of a vice president spending time in New Hampshire inspired confidence that Harris believes a visit would be important for a future presidential run. (Though she has not visited Iowa.)

But there are really four major things helping the future of the New Hampshire primary. First is a movement within the Democratic Party to convince states to dump caucuses for primaries.

Second, Republicans are (probably) the only ones holding a competitive primary in 2024, and they seem intent on keeping the 50-year tradition of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina as their first states.

Third, the new Democratic National Committee chairman is Jaime Harrison of South Carolina. If there was any state that Biden would be inclined to help out it is South Carolina, given its role in making him the nominee, but it might be too unseemly for a national party chair to hand something so valuable to his own state. After Nevada made their latest move, Harrison issued a statement suggesting he wasn’t focused on the issue right now.

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“We are going to continue to let the process play out, as it does every four years, and look forward to hearing the insight and recommendations from all interested parties on the 2020 reforms, and on the 2024 calendar at the appropriate time in the process,” he said.

Fourth, is that so far Harris has been stumbling some as vice president, catching criticism from the left, the right and even some former aides, who are highlighting her political weak spots. If any Democrat senses an opportunity to challenge Harris in a 2028 Democratic primary, they have the incentive to keep the status quo in place versus starting out in a bigger state or a national primary.

Fifth, as has always been the case, there is absolutely zero consensus on what state or system should replace the New Hampshire primary’s lead-off role.

In other words, despite real threats, the New Hampshire presidential primary will definitely be first in 2024 and likely also in 2028.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.