Democrats battle over 2024 nomination calendar as Biden weighs options

Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount
Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), shown here on Capitol Hill in June 2021, advocates that Michigan be put first in line in Democratic presidential primary states in 2024.

New Hampshire’s Republican governor considers Nevada’s bid to become the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state a joke. Nevada’s top Democratic operative is warning against a big state like Michigan jumping to the front of the line. And South Carolina kingmaker Rep. James E. Clyburn (D) has signaled support for replacing Iowa.

But with just days left before Democrats gather on Dec. 1 to decide their presidential nominating order, it remains unclear just how the calendar will sort out. The most important voice in Democratic politics, that of President Biden, has yet to weigh in, and many members of the Rules and Bylaws Committee responsible for deciding the outcome continue to await word from the White House.

That has left an increasingly unruly void, with competing states sniping at each other in public and private, as they grapple for position ahead of a decision that could ultimately reshape the petri dish from which Democratic presidents emerge. The fight, which is scheduled for resolution at a three-day meeting in Washington, now circles around three major questions, according to several people involved in the process, who emphasize that the outcome remains entirely uncertain.

Will Nevada or New Hampshire be blessed with the first place primary spot? Will Michigan or Minnesota, fresh from huge Democratic election wins, be selected as the Midwestern replacement for the disfavored Iowa caucuses? And will a fifth state be added to the pre-Super Tuesday window?

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) is all but certain Democrats are coming for his state’s first-in-the-nation primary, and he says there is zero chance they will succeed. New Hampshire state law requires its secretary of state to set the primary date seven days before any other, and Sununu says that is what is going to happen no matter what Biden wants, potentially forcing Democratic candidates to choose between ignoring the state and facing punishment from their party.

“Nevada wants to go first? Can we all have a good laugh at that? They’re still counting fricking votes,” Sununu said in an interview one week after the midterm elections. “This isn’t something – ‘I get it because I want it,’ like a petulant child. You have to earn it with high voter turnout, transparency, results, quick access to winners and when you need to do a recount – we did four recounts yesterday – boom, done.”

He warned that if Democrats blackball the state’s primary, New Hampshire voters will remember in the general election, potentially putting at risk the state’s four electoral votes, which Biden won in 2020. “I think Democrats are doing themselves a horrible disservice by even trying to, you know, insinuate that we don’t do it right,” he said.

Rebecca Lambe, the former chief political strategist for the late Democratic senator Harry M. Reid of Nevada, snapped back that Democrats should not listen to Republican opinions as they seek to diversify the early primary process. She has argued that Nevada should go first, and warned about large, expensive states jumping to the front of the line.

“I don’t think the DNC should take their advice on this from a Republican governor who wants to run for president against Joe Biden,” Lambe said, before turning her words against New Hampshire’s bid to go first. “They have some of the worst, most restrictive voting laws in the country. They have no early voting, no vote by mail, and they have made it a lot harder for college students to vote.”

Democrats will keep a Senate majority after winning eight out of the nine seats rated competitive by Cook Political Report. Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, creating a split Congress and dealing a blow to President Joe Biden and his agenda.

Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign on Tuesday, ignoring the advice of longtime allies who encouraged him to delay the announcement.

Michigan and Minnesota, in the meantime, are locked in their own behind-the-scenes battle over which Midwestern state is best suited to replace Iowa, a move that top Democratic advisers have indicated they want to do.

Democrats in both states won trifecta control of the governor and the state legislatures during the midterm elections – even as Nevada lost its Democratic governor. That will allow state Democratic leaders to set dates for their states if the party chooses to move them up – either by crafting separate dates for Democrats and Republicans or by forcing Republicans to violate their party’s own primary schedule, which leaves unchanged the 2016 order of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

“Both states clearly have a path now to get this done,” Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party chairman Ken Martin said. “We are going to have a spirited discussion over the next couple of weeks.”

Michigan Democrats, who were seen by some committee members as a front-runner for the Midwestern Iowa replacement before the midterms, remain bullish on their own prospects.

Photo for The Washington Post by David Becker
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) speaks during a Republican Jewish Coalition meeting in Las Vegas on Nov. 19, 2022.

“Michigan is a purple state for Republicans and Democrats and we need states in that early window that reflect the diversity of our country and that will begin to build the infrastructure for our general election,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.).

Some South Carolina Democrats are concerned about Michigan – which was awarded 125 pledged delegates in 2020, more than New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina combined – entering the early window, fearing the big delegate haul will force candidates to spend most of their time campaigning there.

“We have always put in the pre-window calendar smaller states and we’ve done that for good reasons,” said Carol Fowler, a member of the Rules and Bylaws Committee from South Carolina. “If Michigan had been in an early state, I’m not sure President Carter would have ever been president. I think Barack Obama benefited from having small states up front. I think it’s so helpful for a good strong candidate who is not well-funded yet.”

Fowler said her animus was not specifically targeted at Michigan, but rather broader concerns about any large state seeking to move up in the order.

“I’m going to give every consideration to every state that has applied but I haven’t seen any reason yet to support a big state,” she said.

But Clyburn, the dean of South Carolina Democrats and a close ally of Biden, said he would not oppose Michigan’s bid to enter the pre-window as long as it does not overshadow South Carolina and other Southern states that vote on Super Tuesday.

“If it’s Nevada, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Michigan, that’s almost ideal to me,” he said, though he cautioned New Hampshire’s law could hinder efforts to put it behind Nevada. He said he was also open to New Hampshire and Nevada going on the same day, something Sununu has ruled out.

Clyburn said he has not discussed the calendar with Biden, but when asked if he plans to do so, he said, “I reserve comment.”

Iowa, pushed into a defensive spot, continues to petition for some role in the early process. Scott Brennan, a member of the Rules and Bylaws Committee from Iowa, said the process for reviewing the calendar had so far been “inartful and a little bit surprising,” given the success of Democratic presidential candidates winning the popular vote in every election since 2008 using the current system.

“At least with regard to Iowa, there is no other candidate from the Midwest pool that meets what has always been the requirement, which is a state that is accessible to candidates who don’t start the process with $1 billion,” he said. “The other Midwest candidates are too big, too unwieldy and way too expensive, and the members of the committee know it.”

Senior Democrats began meeting in public in March to discuss revamping the nominating calendar, after top advisers to Biden made clear their displeasure with the Iowa caucuses, a largely White 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.

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.

The full DNC also passed rules this year that empowers the chair of the party to “take appropriate action” against both candidates and state parties who do not abide by the official primary calendar. That could include stripping state delegates from the Democratic convention and barring candidates whose names appear on the state ballots from access to nominating debates or party data.

Whether those punishments come into play will depend largely on the calendar that is set. A White House spokesman declined to comment for this article. But some comment, whether conveyed publicly or privately, is likely to come soon from Biden’s inner circle.

“Everyone is still waiting on the smoke signal from the White House,” said one member of the Rules and Bylaws committee, who like some others for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak about deliberations.