This February's DNC meeting was perhaps the most consequential since the reforms that ended the reign of superdelegates: the DNC voted to put in place a new primary calendar. In doing so, we upended decades of tradition that allowed Iowa to hold the first presidential nominating contest in the nation, in order to prioritize a series of states that better reflect the diversity of the Democratic electorate.
Per the new calendar, South Carolina will become the first primary state on February 3, 2024. New Hampshire and Nevada will follow on the same date on February 6, then Georgia on February 13 and Michigan on February 27. This calendar attempts to balance a mixture of racial, social and geographic diversity, with an added emphasis on states with greater union participation. This is all to the good.
In keeping with my usual practice in these updates, however, I will go beyond the happy press releases and speak openly about some of the power dynamics involved. It is no secret that President Biden and his team have no love lost for Iowa, which has never been friendly to him in nominating contests--including in 2019 when Iowa delivered a split victory for Sanders and Buttigieg. On a broader level, the Iowa caucuses have traditionally given an advantage to anti-establishment candidates to appeal more to the party's more left-leaning voters, and to candidates with more retail politics skills than insider or donor connections. Howard Dean (until the very last minute), Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders all performed well in Iowa. It is no surprise that more moderate forces and those closer to the D.C. establishment were happy to see Iowa dethroned in order to reduce the chances of an upstart supplanting their interests.
That said, from any progressive perspective Iowa deserved to lose its premier spot. As a nearly all-white and increasingly conservative and anti-labor state, there is little about Iowa that is representative of the modern Democratic coalition. At a policy level, Iowa's undue influence creates negative policy consequences, including a corrupting amount of power wielded by the ethanol lobby and by the corn subsidy lobby. There are far more climate-friendly energy sources than ethanol now, and corn subsidies are responsible much of the unhealthy imbalance in American food policy. It is good through any lens that the Democratic Party will be less beholden to these interests, and to an overwhelmingly white electorate.
As far as South Carolina goes, it is no secret that President Biden owes his nomination in large part to the state generally, and the endorsement of South Carolina Congressman and civil rights champion Jim Clyburn specifically. While the Democratic Party calendar certainly needed to do more to emphasize, empower and honor Black voters than Iowa and New Hampshire were doing, there are reasons to question based on the state's low unionization and hard-red tilt overall, whether South Carolina was necessarily the right choice to accomplish that. Many would argue that Georgia's dynamic, growing and overwhelmingly Black Democratic voter base would have been a better fit for first in the nation status. But when an incumbent president is in power, what the White House wants, the White House gets.
I am also concerned by the placement of Nevada and New Hampshire on the same date. While DNC delegates from Nevada did not object, I think that only placing one heavily Hispanic/Latino state in the primary calendar, and then putting it on the same day as New Hampshire, does a disservice to the growing Hispanic electorate--and to the Western states more generally. The Party's East Coast establishment has not done remotely enough to center Hispanic/Latino voters generally. The latest electoral trends reflect that, and I feel that the primary calendar is one more unfortunate result of that oversight. Continuing to overlook Hispanic/Latino voters could have disastrous consequences in future elections, and the party needs to take these communities far more seriously than it is currently doing.
On a personal level, I am somewhat amused both at the Biden White House's insistence on protecting itself from 2024 threats via the nominating calendar, and by the fury in some leftist corners about it.
From an establishment perspective, Joe Biden is not in any real danger of a serious primary--no more from an Iowa or Georgia electorate than a South Carolina one. From a progressive perspective, not only has Biden (with some significant exceptions) done very good job as president, he has also governed more from the left than any president since FDR. In my opinion, primarying the sitting president is a pointless and counterproductive waste of progressive energy, no matter what the nominating calendar looks like.
Which brings us to the practical problems and ways that shifting the primary calendar may do more harm than good for the "unity" so many want to enforce: state law in Iowa and New Hampshire demand first-in-the-nation status for their caucuses and primaries, respectively. Republicans in functional control of those states are not interested in helping the DNC accommodate the new calendar. Moreover, if there is a significant primary challenge to Biden, South Carolina Democrats may simply opt not to hold a primary at all. All of which could lead to an embarrassing situation in which Iowa and New Hampshire hold primaries where Biden is not participating and not on the ballot, but other Democrats primarying Biden choose to be. Those candidates would receive a wave of curious news stories, while the DNC would of course sanction and refuse to seat their delegates. That seems to me a worse outcome than having done nothing at all, assuming no resolution can be found.
I think one of the challenges here was that the DNC was "given" this preferred primary at a fairly late date. The White House appears to have decided on this course somewhat hurriedly and at the last minute. It is no surprise that there may be some unwanted and unintended consequences that were not especially well thought out.
Above and beyond all that, though, comes 2028. Throughout this process, in order to minimize conflict and secure unanimity, the new calendar was presented as temporary and subject to revisiting prior to 2028. Whether or not Democrats win in 2024, there will be a vigorously contested nominating process in 2028. It is almost certain that progressives will seek a nominating calendar that does a better job of centering younger, urban and Hispanic voters, with stronger socially progressive leanings and urgent demands for universal benefits, more dramatic economic reforms including on housing, fiercer urgency on climate, and a more openly combative approach to the fascist movement on the Right. The subject of the nominating calendar will certainly be revisited in the years ahead.
Finally, a few minor and related notes:
1) the DNC Resolutions Committee once again allowed a stronger anti-dark-money resolution to die for lack of a motion and second in support, while passing a more watered-down version that explicitly fails to address the issue of dark money in Democratic primaries while claiming to take a stand against dark money. This is unfortunate, and not the first time.
2) a DNC resolution was passed explicitly in support of President Biden's re-election. As I have noted, I am supporting the president's re-election and think a primary is a dumb waste of energy. That said, as a matter of process the DNC's rules are explicit: we are not supposed to be supporting any candidate for president--not even a sitting incumbent--until the nominating process has already taken place. Any number of highly unlikely yet still possible events could happen that might determine a different course in 2024, and committing ourselves overly early as an organization against our own rules seems unnecessary. Moreover, in the wake of the "thumb on the scales" scandal of 2016, it also seems like a pointless way to give leftists who dislike and distrust the DNC ammunition against the organization. It did not need saying that the Democratic National Committee is committed to re-electing our nominee, who will almost certainly be our sitting president. Let time proceed onward, let the process play out, and let the organization make its commitments evenhandedly and in accordance with the rules. The establishment's obsession with "unity" is misguided. Lack of unity wasn't why we lost in 2004 or 2016. Lack of coalition-building, smart campaigning and effective voter mobilization was.
3) Reform efforts continue apace, though little of major significance will be effected at an institutional process while defending an incumbent president. Right now our main focus as DNC members is helping to stop the fascist threat from Trump and DeSantis, while growing and mobilizing our coalition for progressive victories. How we perform in 2024 will dictate the possibilities for the progressive movement: a full electoral repudiation of the Right will create the space for a more full-throated progressivism and more internal debate over party direction. Another narrow victory would keep the party on its heels. Catastrophically, a defeat would not only jettison the country into crisis and potential authoritarian rule: from the perspective of internal Democratic Party politics, it would also send the powers that be in the party into a series of anti-progressive recriminations and retrenchment similar to the post-Reagan era. That must be avoided at all costs.
For the next 16 months, the key job of the progressive movement is to continue to push for good policy and aggressive anti-fascist rhetoric; to elect more and better Democrats all the way from Capitol Hill to our local school boards; and to do all in our power to support our presidential nominee--almost certainly Joe Biden--to an overwhelming defeat of their Republican opponent, whoever they may be.