For the past few election cycles, the quartet of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina has had a lock on the early seats in the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination process.
But that may be about to change.
Like clockwork every four years, Democrats are trying to adjust their rules for presidential nomination, and right now they are fine-tuning the 2024 calendar. The party has regularly pinned its hopes on nomination rules to pave the way for a November victory.
As a longtime scholar of the presidential nomination process, I have noticed that the rule fights are aimed at finding that sweet spot that is likely to elicit a nominee with a wide appeal inside and outside the party.
The party needs to balance the legitimacy that comes with a process that makes it easy for average Democrats to insert their votes with the safety valve that allows knowledgeable party insiders to weigh in on the election. All of those pieces must produce a process that is long enough to ensure real competition, but not so long that internal party fences cannot be repaired long before the general election.
This time, the Democratic National Committee is aiming for that mix of states that will begin the nomination process, hoping for something better than what was in place. It has taken the unusual step of drawing up a competition between government departments to help it draw up the 2024 calendar. Sixteen states and Puerto Rico have just made their submissions to the national party to be among the first to hold competitions, with a decision expected later this summer.
It’s tempting to label it all as a scam to oust the Iowa caucuses from their lead role, a position they have held since 1972. In fact, Iowa’s claim to that privileged position is very much in jeopardy, especially given its 2020 caucus failure, which I outline in my book, “Inside the Bubble.”
Going early matters because it gives the Democrats in those states a bigger voice in the nomination. Candidates flock to the early states, interact with voters and sometimes adapt their policies to the needs peculiar to a state. The first competitions do not determine who will win, but they usually knock some candidates out of the race.
Who can choose?
The two major American parties are federal in nature, and their organizational structures reflect the range of elective offices for which they compete, from the sheriff of the province to the president. Nevertheless, the national party is well positioned to address the shots at the state level, supported by a now decades-old Supreme Court ruling confirming the national party’s superiority over state departments.
The National Committee maintained control of the calendar for a long time, and began that path when it revised nomination rules after the controversial 1968 Democratic National Convention. The package of reforms, first implemented in 1972, sought to remove presidential nominations from the proverbial backroom and make them more open, more democratic.
Technically, in the by-elections and caucuses, voters elect the delegates who support the presidential candidate they elect. At the party convention, the candidate wins the nomination with the majority of delegates.
Prior to the 1972 reforms, delegation segregation was not always linked to outcomes in pre-elections and caucuses. According to nomination expert Elaine Kamarck, 25% of 1968’s presidential delegates were elected in 1967, well ahead of what is now considered the formal start of the nomination race.
From caucuses to pre-elections
Under the initial provisions of the 1972 reforms, the national party did not limit how early in the election year a state could hold its nomination competition. That Iowa was first in 1972, however, was not so much a deliberate move for positioning as an unintended byproduct of another national party government.
The reformed system, in the interest of allowing time to publish competitions, required 30 days’ notice of delegate selection competitions. This meant that Iowa had to start early, as the state’s process involved a series of competitions, not just the prominent caucuses of the area. But Iowa even started earlier than the new rules stipulate, mainly due to a coincidence that involves a huge demand for hotel rooms.
By 1980, Iowa had secured its role as the first caucus and New Hampshire was named the first primary. For that election cycle, the Democratic National Committee has introduced a rule that converts nomination contests into a 13-week window, starting in early March. But then-President Jimmy Carter, who was seeking re-election and swinging over his party, insisted on an exception for Iowa and New Hampshire, states that began its 1976 campaign and could serve as a firewall. The national committee finally granted the exception.
In the 1970s, the Democratic National Committee had no beef with caucuses, and more states held caucuses as by-elections. They were seen as institutions for deliberation and activist involvement.
But by 2022, caucuses are under fire because they are excluded, and most states are holding primaries. The transition from caucuses to pre-elections in the 1970s and 1980s was largely an unexpected consequence of the initial reform, as compliance with those new rules from 1972 was easier with pre-elections than caucuses. In 2020, the Democratic National Committee urged states to expand the use of by-elections, claiming that they are more inclusive, transparent and accessible than caucuses.
The irony is that when a party moves to a primary, it gives up power.
Caucasus are party-run and party-funded events, while by-elections are state-run party elections. In an era dominated by Republican-controlled state legislatures, some of which passed restrictive voting laws, Democratic primary states surrendered themselves to the mercy of the opposition party.
This summer’s action by the Democratic National Committee could shake the 2024 calendar. Iowa runs the risk of losing its privileged position, but so far the committee has not guaranteed any state an exception on the 13-week window. The committee says up to five states will be able to hold matches before the window opens. The other three traditional early walkers, I believe, are a little better positioned than Iowa to get one of the early slots.
There is no reason to think that the White House pressure will prevail as in the past, but if it does, the “gut punch” that Iowa delivered to then-candidate Biden in 2020 and his “resurrection” in South Carolina likely to carry weight in the deliberations.
Iowa Democrats submitted their proposal to the Democratic National Committee in early June 2022, describing a process that retains the caucus etiquette but still meets the aforementioned committee criteria of fairness, transparency and inclusivity. In particular, Iowa’s new plan provides for a period for participants to express presidential preferences before the actual caucuses, which means there will be a way for voters to participate without attending the caucuses. This will make the process a little more inclusive.
A final decision on which states will be able to hold early competitions is expected from the Democratic National Committee in early September.
Whatever the shape of the new calendar, it is a safe bet that things will not play out exactly as planned, as unforeseen consequences have characterized the party’s reform efforts in the past.