Saturday, 28 January, 2023

US presidential election 2024: Biden pushes to re-shuffle early states

A souvenir store in Des Moines, Iowa's state capital, sells T-shirts that read: "Iowa: For some reason, you have to come here to be president."

That may be about to change - for the Democrats, at least.

For more than half a century, the states of Iowa and New Hampshire have played an oversized role in determining the presidential nominees for both the Democratic and Republican parties.

The power of these relatively small states comes from their position at the top of the four-year presidential nomination calendar, giving voters in the two states the first go at selecting their preferred nominees.

The choices of a few hundred thousand Americans in a nation of 332 million can elevate candidates to frontrunner status or damage, sometimes mortally, the campaigns of politicians thought to be top contenders. It can also make otherwise local or regional issues, like agriculture and ethanol subsidies in Iowa, big talking points for national politicians.

But on Friday, Democratic National Committee leaders voted to approve President Joe Biden's plan to make South Carolina the first presidential primary election for his party in 2024. Nevada and New Hampshire would jointly follow three days later, followed by Georgia and then Michigan in subsequent weeks.

Iowa would sink to somewhere far down the list. That would cost the small midwestern farming state tens of millions of dollars in estimated economic benefits from the Democratic candidates and campaign staff who book its hotels, pack its restaurants and flood its airwaves with advertisements ahead of its so-called caucus election.

In his letter, Mr Biden wrote that the early primary states needed to reflect the "overall diversity of our party and our nation - economically, geographically, demographically".

The populations of both Iowa and New Hampshire tilt older, whiter and more rural than the national average - leading to criticism by some on the left that they are unrepresentative of the Democratic Party's younger, multi-cultural, city-dwelling electoral coalition.

A large majority of Michigan residents live in urban areas like Detroit. The average age in Georgia is 37, tied for the eighth-youngest state in the US. South Carolina, meanwhile, is 26% black.

"For decades, black voters in particular have been the backbone of the Democratic Party but have been pushed to the back of the early primary process," Mr Biden said. "It is time to stop taking these voters for granted."

Past efforts, however, have been stymied by the two states, which jealously protect their pole position in the presidential selection process.

There are reasons to believe this time may be different however. Unlike many recent presidents, Mr Biden owes no particular debt to the voters in the two early states. In 2020, he finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire.

His campaign did not fully recover from those setbacks until he won the South Carolina primary - the state that, perhaps not coincidentally, would benefit most from the president's proposed calendar.

The 2020 Iowa caucuses were also an embarrassment for Democrats, as efforts to electronically report results from the nearly 1,700 precinct caucuses - where voters gather in the evening to discuss and vote on candidates, and can switch their allegiances based on strategic considerations or a heartfelt changes of preference - were beset by technical difficulties.

Another strike against Iowa is that the state as a whole has trended Republican in recent years. Mr Biden lost the state to Donald Trump in 2020 by 9%, and the state has had a Republican governor since 2011. Democrats may be less concerned about angering voters in a state that is no longer a player on the presidential election map.

Iowa's fate at this point may be sealed, but New Hampshire is unlikely to yield its top status - which it has held since 1920 and is symbolically enshrined in state law - without a fight.

New Hampshire may be small, but it is a bona fide swing state that could prove pivotal in a close presidential race. And, unlike Iowa, it has two senators who are Democrats. One, Jeanne Shaheen, blasted Mr Biden's decision as "short-sighted".

A committee of the Democratic National Committee is meeting to draft the 2024 primary schedule, which will require approval by the entire party committee of approximately 400 members in early 2023.

Once a plan is adopted, each state will have to schedule their primaries on the agreed-upon date or risk having their results discarded by the party when it meets in the national convention that will crown the 2024 presidential nominee.

Mr Biden noted that he would prefer his proposed schedule only apply to 2024 and that the primary order be revisited every four years - suggesting that one of his interests may be smoothing the path to re-nomination in two years by putting the friendly state of South Carolina at the top.

Whether Democrats have the stomach for quadrennial fights over the primary process is an open question.

Republicans, for their part, have already announced that they will be sticking with Iowa and New Hampshire as their top two for the foreseeable future, setting up the possibility that the two parties could have their candidates campaigning in different parts of the country at different times in early 2024.