Democrats’ Attempts to Rearrange the Primary Calendar Have Put Biden in a Bind

Elections & Politics Policy Brief #84 | By: Ian Milden | July 7, 2023
Photo taken from: newrepublic.com

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Summary

With Joe Biden’s support, the DNC worked to rearrange the early parts of the primary calendar. However, states where Republicans play a role in scheduling primaries have not cooperated. This brief will explain the dilemma that Democrats put themselves in, with a focus on the first in the nation primary.

Analysis

Earlier this year, the DNC and President Biden proposed a plan to alter the presidential primary calendar for the 2024 nomination. The proposal, which was approved by the DNC, would remove Iowa from the early state lineup, move South Carolina to the first spot, have New Hampshire and Nevada go the week after that, and have Georgia and Michigan be the last two states to go before Super Tuesday. I’ve previously written about this plan with a focus on the effects of removing Iowa from the early part of the calendar.

The implementation of this became problematic because the states have the formal power to set their own primary dates since they pay for and administer the election. South Carolina is an exception because the state parties have some flexibility in setting the date. The DNC only has the power to set rules for delegate selection, which have specifications on what days states can hold their primaries. Some of these states have Republican Governors and state legislatures that are controlled by Republicans. The most notable of these states in the early primary slate is New Hampshire where the Governor is a Republican, and Republicans control a majority in both houses of the state legislature. Neither is likely to take orders from Biden or the DNC on how their state should conduct its primary.

If the lack of power in the New Hampshire state government wasn’t a big enough challenge to change the date of the primary, there is a New Hampshire state law in effect that requires the state to have the first Presidential primary in the nation. The law also gives the state Secretary of State, which is the state’s top election official, broad power to move the New Hampshire Primary’s date to keep the state in compliance with the law. New Hampshire state government officials have made quite clear to the DNC that they will not change the law

The DNC has responded by repeatedly postponing the requirements for New Hampshire to change the law, which pushes the problem to a later date. The latest date is September 1st, which won’t result in any changes on New Hampshire’s part. The Republicans in the state government don’t stand to benefit in any manner if they comply with the DNC’s requests.

If New Hampshire remains the first primary, Biden will have broken a promise to South Carolina Democrats. This would be particularly harmful to Biden since South Carolina Democrats helped him get the nomination in 2020. South Carolina’s main Democratic constituency is black voters, whom Democrats need to turn out to vote in large numbers in the general election. If Biden appears insensitive to black voters in South Carolina, black voters in other states will notice and might be less likely to vote.

If Biden sticks with his plan and elects to ignore the New Hampshire primary, he risks allowing a fringe candidate such as anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. or Marianne Williamson to gain a foothold in the primary and appear credible. The Biden campaign and the DNC do not want to waste financial resources fending off a primary challenger to an incumbent President, especially one who has suggested without evidence that the CIA could assassinate him.

There’s not a particularly good solution available to Biden and the DNC in resolving the primary calendar dilemma. At this point, Biden and the DNC should quietly begin to accept that New Hampshire is going to go first and plan around that. While they don’t control New Hampshire politics, they can control the strategic decisions they make. Their strategy for the primary campaign should revolve around figuring out how to prevent any primary opponent from gaining a significant following in New Hampshire while appeasing black voters in South Carolina by being visibly present in the state.

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