The Democratic Party is on the edge of bidding goodbye to that quirkiest of political spectacles known as the Iowa caucuses — and not a minute too soon.
In a long overdue break with the past, the Democratic National Committee is looking to rearrange the presidential electoral calendar at the request of the man who eventually got to the Oval Office in spite of the challenges and pitfalls posed by those notorious killers of presidential dreams — Iowa and New Hampshire.
The DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee voted at the end of last week to begin the 2024 presidential primary season in South Carolina on Feb. 3, followed by New Hampshire and Nevada on Feb. 6, Georgia on Feb. 13, and Michigan on Feb. 27. The committee’s vote still needs to be ratified early next year by the full DNC.
Now, it would be easy to write off the choice of South Carolina as simply President Biden’s effort to convey the ultimate favor to the state where his 2020 presidential campaign finally turned around, after being given the cold shoulder by voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. And there are certainly good arguments to be made for Michigan, for example, which is more urban and labor friendly and electorally more competitive than South Carolina, which is represented in the US Senate by two Republicans.
But there is also no getting around the fact that the lineup proposed by the DNC’s Rules Committee is preferable to keeping Iowa and New Hampshire at the top of the presidential nominating heap simply because they’ve always been there, no matter how unrepresentative those states are of the Democratic electorate.
“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 in a letter to members of the DNC Rules Committee.
“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 said. “We rely on these voters in elections but have not recognized their importance in our nominating calendar. It is time to stop taking these voters for granted, and time to give them a louder and earlier voice in the process.”
South Carolina’s Black population is more than 26 percent of its total (to 66 percent white), compared to Iowa, which is 89 percent white and 3.7 percent Black, or New Hampshire, which is about 93 percent white, 2 percent Black and 4 percent Latino.
Biden also spoke a long-unspoken truth about the inherent unfairness of the antiquated caucus system used in Iowa and a few other states, noting, “It should be our party’s goal to rid the nominating process of restrictive, anti-worker caucuses.”
“Caucuses — requiring voters to choose in public, to spend significant amounts of time to caucus, disadvantaging hourly workers and anyone who does not have the flexibility to go to a set location at a set time — are inherently anti-participatory,” he wrote.
Throw in the fact that Iowa did a miserable job in 2020 of tallying caucus votes, a process that took days instead of hours, and the party has more than enough cause to at long last move on from the caucus system.
Even with Biden’s backing, change won’t be easy. Nothing in the Democrats’ plan obligates the Republican Party to follow suit, and Iowa is still likely to lead off the presidential nominating process, at least on the GOP side. And there is still the thorny problem posed by New Hampshire state law which demands that its presidential primary be held before any other “similar contest” in the nation and gives state officials the power to change the date of the primary accordingly. Sticking to that in the wake of a DNC-approved schedule that puts South Carolina first could result in New Hampshires’ delegates to the party’s nominating convention being penalized, their number reduced, or even candidates penalized for campaigning in the state.
The romantic myths of Iowa farmers gathering in barns to check out candidates as if they were prime heifers or New Hampshire voters gathering over coffee and cookies in someone’s living room to see the newest presidential contender up close and personal have become just that — myths. The reality is the early presidential road shows mean a big economic boost to the states that host them — hotels packed with media and political operatives, and big political ad budgets boosting local TV.
In a perfect world, a system of rotating regional primaries long espoused by the National Association of Secretaries of State would provide the kind of fairness the presidential nominating process merits. But in this far-from-perfect world, the rotation being proposed by Democratic Party officials offers good regional balance and a level of voter diversity that have been sorely lacking.
Politicians from Keokuk to Keene surely know the truth of that.
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