Friday, February 19, 2021

The Week the Calendar Wars Heated Up

The week began with Nevada making the opening move in the 2024 presidential primary calendar wars, a move made on the foundation set by the Iowa caucuses debacle in 2020. David Siders and Elena Schneider at Politico had a well-reported piece that covered voices from all over the early calendar state terrain. 

Let's read a bit between the lines with an annotated look at some of the more interesting points in the article.

On Iowa:
As has been pointed out in other reporting, there seems to be dissension in the ranks among Iowa Democrats about the future of the caucuses. That comes out again in this Politico piece. Newly elected Iowa Democratic Party chair, Ross Wilburn toed the party line:
"In Iowa, the state’s Democratic Party chair, state Rep. Ross Wilburn, said he is 'prepared to do whatever it takes to keep Iowa first in the nation.'"
But there are some doubts:
"Nevada’s move this week intensified conversations among top Iowa and New Hampshire operatives and activists eager to prepare their defense, and privately, several Iowa Democrats acknowledged that their status was in serious jeopardy."
This will continue to be something worth tracking in Iowa. There is outright dissension on keeping the caucuses intact within the state party, but how widespread it is remains to be seen. In any event, signs of resignation or that 2024 might be different for Iowa Democrats are present in a form that really has not shown itself publicly in the post-reform era. This is probably the story with Iowa moving forward because the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee will not be blind to any other chinks in the armor in the Hawkeye state.

On Nevada's play for first:
"Nevada’s Democratic Assembly Speaker, Jason Frierson, suggested the bill was a starting point for a 'national conversation about what makes sense.'

"'It would not be ideal to just have a back-and-forth and just have a leapfrog exercise,' he said, 'so the hope is that we can coordinate with the national party as well as our states, and work something out.' Frierson said he 'certainly [is] not trying to start some dispute between states,' adding that 'this is the beginning of the conversation.'"
Frierson's comments here are enlightening. They reveal that Democrats in the Silver state are going to take an early and aggressive approach to the 2024 calendar. Viewed through that lens, this -- the introduction of the January presidential primary bill -- is a provocative action rather than one intended to lay the groundwork for a case to be first pitched to the national party. Instead, the legislation, a bill that is basically a replica of earlier Nevada Republican proposals, is an opening salvo meant to force the issue not only with other carve-out states, but with the national party. Again, as FHQ has pointed out, it is not clear how receptive the national party will be to such a maneuver.

On the DNC taking up the calendar issue:
"'It’s unclear when the Democratic National Committee will formally take up the calendar issue.' David Bergstein, a DNC spokesperson, said in an email that 'the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee will continue to evaluate all areas of our nominating process and make recommendations for any changes.'"
The calendar will come up. It always comes up. Always. And the calendar will definitely be a component of the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee report on the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination process due out in March. Yes, this is expectations setting on the part of the DNC spokesperson. Change may or may not come to the beginning of the primary calendar, but the issue will be raised, and this is a fairly clear attempt at tamping down on the expectations of change to a part of the nomination process that is both thorny and difficult to alter. Otherwise, Iowa and New Hampshire would have been uprooted by now.

On Iowa and New Hampshire conducting unsanctioned contests in 2024:
"Iowa and New Hampshire could also choose to buck the party. States have done that before, as Florida and Michigan did with early primaries in 2008 in defiance of party rules. Asked whether Iowa could hold an unsanctioned caucus — daring candidates not to campaign there — Dave Nagle, the former congressmember and Iowa state Democratic Party chair, said, 'Sure.'"
While it is true that Iowa and/or New Hampshire (or any other state for that matter) could hold an unsanctioned primary or caucus, this fails to mention the penalties involved. Yes, Florida and Michigan ignored those penalties in the 2008 cycle and the first two states could do that in 2024 if the DNC does not give its blessing. But this scenario omits the Rule 21.C.1.b penalty levied against candidates who opt to campaign in rogue states. That would strip a violating candidate of any delegates won in a state in violation of the timing rules. We just do not know how candidates and their campaigns would behave in that eventuality. There is every reason to believe that candidates would flaunt the rules and campaign in hypothetically rogue Iowa and New Hampshire. They would be opportunities to gain attention. But there are also reasons to believe that candidates would avoid the states to focus on those that are sanctioned by the national party, are more diverse and have more delegates at stake.

On New Hampshire just doing what New Hampshire always does by leaping every challenger:
"For every state that has tried to move ahead of Iowa or New Hampshire, he [Dave Nagle] said, 'it generally does not have a happy ending. ... The one thing they’re ignoring, and it shows their inexperience out there [in Nevada], the one thing is Bill Gardner in New Hampshire. Bill will go to July of 2021 if he has to to keep the first primary.'"
Nagle is completely right here. There have been few happy endings in challenging the early states over the years. But how do things end if the DNC opts to change its rules at the beginning of the calendar and it is Iowa and New Hampshire that are staring down the prospect of the penalties being turned on them instead of others? That is the thing that is not being discussed enough in the context of New Hampshire in particular

On the DNC banning caucuses altogether:
"'The big question for Iowa Democrats, being talked about in sotto voce, is, does the DNC ban caucuses altogether?' said John Deeth, a Johnson County, Iowa, Democratic activist who supports eliminating the caucuses and replacing them with a primary. 'If they do that, Republicans, however, hold on to a trifecta of the legislature and the governor’s office [in Iowa], and they are not interested in passing a primary bill for Democrats … and that leaves us with only bad options.'"
FHQ does not get the sense that there is much of an appetite to outright ban caucuses, especially after the rules changes for 2020 encouraging primaries was such a success. In 2016, 14 states (not counting territories) conducted caucuses. Four years later after the rules changes that number was down to just three. And the pandemic pushed the Wyoming caucuses to a mail-in party-run primary model. So it was really just Iowa and Nevada that conducted caucuses in 2020. That is a successful rules change. Iowa may not have Democratic caucuses in 2024 and may get no help from state Republicans in pulling off a primary, but there are other options as demonstrated by a number of party-run primaries in 2020. 

All of this remains in flux, of course, but even in mid-February of 2021 the rules for 2024 are beginning to take shape and states are already attempting to position themselves on the calendar. 

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