President Joe Biden has asked leaders of the Democratic National Committee to make South Carolina the nation’s first primary state, followed by New Hampshire and Nevada a week later, and hold subsequent weekly primaries in Georgia and Michigan, according to Democrats briefed on the plans.
The tectonic decision to remake his party’s presidential nominating calendar for 2024 came as a shock to party officials and state leaders who had been lobbying hard in recent weeks to gain a place in the early calendar, which historically attracts millions of dollars in candidate spending and attention. While many in the party had long anticipated changes, the specific order Biden proposed had generated little if any chatter in Democratic circles. Much of the talk among Democrats had not focused much on either South Carolina going first or Georgia joining the early mix.
The proposal is likely to win approval from the Democratic officials, given the support from the leader of the party. By breaking with decades of tradition, Biden’s move is meant to signal his party’s commitment to elevating more variety - demographic, geographic and economic - in the early nominating process. Iowa, a largely White state that historically held the nation’s first Democratic caucus and experienced embarrassing problems tabulating results in 2020, would have no early role in the Biden plan.
“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 Rules and Bylaws Committee that was delivered Thursday evening, as members planned to meet for dinner. “As I said in February 2020, you cannot be the Democratic nominee and win a general election unless you have overwhelming support from voters of color - and that includes Black, Brown and Asian American & Pacific Islander voters.”
The new calendar would run through states that were pivotal to Biden’s victory in the 2020 nominating fight and general election, suggesting he is serious about following through on his public statements about intending to seek reelection. In the Thursday letter, Biden told fellow Democrats that he did not want to bind the party to the same calendar in 2028.
“The Rules and Bylaws Committee should review the calendar every four years, to ensure that it continues to reflect the values and diversity of our party and our country,” he wrote.
The plan is expected to face resistance from some of the affected states. Democrats in New Hampshire said Thursday night that they would not abide Biden’s wishes. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, has also said he would follow state law and hold his state’s primary a week before any other.
“The DNC did not give New Hampshire the first-in-the-nation primary and it is not theirs to take away,” New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley said in a statement. “This news is obviously disappointing, but we will be holding our primary first. We have survived past attempts over the decades and we will survive this.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) called the Biden recommendation “tremendously disappointing.” Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) said in a statement that it was “deeply misguided.”
Iowa Democrats also signaled resistance to the plan. “This is merely a recommendation,” said Scott Brennan, Iowa’s representative on the Rules and Bylaws Committee. “We’re going to stand up for Iowa’s place in the process.”
Democrats will need Republican support in Georgia to move that state’s primary earlier in the calendar. In Nevada, a Republican governor will be sworn into office next month, potentially complicating efforts to move the date in that state. The Republican Party has already committed to the traditional order for 2024, allowing four states to go before all the others: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
In rules passed this summer, Democrats gave their chair the power to strip delegates, debate access and data access from candidates who campaign in unsanctioned states. The chair also has the power to unseat state delegations from the nominating convention if they defy party rules.
“This is a principled decision. Fundamentally, he felt that this was an opportunity,” said one Biden adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to more openly describe the president’s decision to prioritize states with more diverse electorates. “He has done it with the Supreme Court. He has done it with his Cabinet and his administration. He just felt it was very important.”
The Michigan delegation greeted the news as a success.
“This president knows that any road to the White House has to go through the heartland of America,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who had helped to lead her state’s bid. “To me this has been a 30-year quest,” she said, referring to her work with the late Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) to get the state on the early calendar.
South Carolina Democrats also welcomed the news.
“It appears as though President Biden is not only transforming our country,” Trav Robertson, chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, wrote in a text message. “He’s transforming the way in which we nominate presidents. He is going to have a lasting impact on America.”
The plan must be ratified by the Rules and Bylaws Committee, which is meeting Friday and Saturday at a Washington hotel, and then approved by the full Democratic National Committee in February, Democratic officials said.
In recent weeks, Biden has personally spoken with officials from Nevada, New Hampshire and Michigan about his plans. He spoke Wednesday with the co-chairs of the committee, James Roosevelt Jr. and Minyon Moore, about his thinking, Democratic officials said.
Senior Democrats began meeting in public in March to discuss revamping the nominating calendar, after top officials close to Biden made clear their displeasure with the Iowa caucuses, a state that shunned Biden’s campaign and struggled to count results in 2020. Democrats have said they were concerned about the amount of money and effort Democrats were spending in a state that has become less competitive in general elections and does not reflect the diversity of the party and the country. The caucuses, held in the evening during the week, also ensure more limited participation than a primary.
In recent cycles, Iowa has gone first for Democrats, followed by New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Iowa is bound to hold the nation’s first nominating caucus under current state law. In his letter to the committee, Biden said he did not believe caucuses should be allowed in Democratic nominating efforts.
Iowa Democrats have not said whether they will move forward with the first-in-the-nation caucus with Republicans if they are kicked out of the nominating order by their party. They could also hold a nominating caucus, which they currently plan to conduct by mail, after the rest of the country joins the nominating process.
Earlier this year, party officials adopted guidelines for revamping the calendar that would prioritize states that commit to hold primaries, demonstrate general-election competitiveness and are demographically diverse. They also set a goal to include at least one state from New England, the South, the Midwest and Western regions of the country. But they also acknowledged that Biden’s view would figure prominently in their final decision. Sixteen states and Puerto Rico ultimately made presentations to Democratic officials about why they should go early in the process.
Democrats in Michigan say they will be able to move the primary date, given their complete control of state government.
The decision marked a letdown for Democrats in Minnesota who had campaigned aggressively to be chosen over Michigan as the Midwestern replacement for Iowa.
“I got into politics because of civil rights and the possibility to change our imperfect union into something better,” Biden wrote to the committee Thursday. “For fifty years, the first month of our presidential nominating process has been a treasured part of our democratic process, but it is time to update the process for the 21st century.”