Thursday, December 1, 2022

The Calendar Pieces on the DNCRBC's Board

This post has been updated to account for President Biden's letter giving the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee further direction in finalizing the primary calendar rules. Additions will appear in brackets [ ] below.

As the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee (DNCRBC) convenes to determine the last piece of the puzzle that is the party's delegate selection rules for the 2024 cycle, it is helpful to remember that there are some things that the panel can do and some things that they cannot. 

Ultimately, any set of delegate selection rules -- regardless of party -- is a set of guidelines within which state governments and state parties ideally act. But sometimes the ideal is not met and a party ends up with Florida and Michigan in 2008 or Florida and some non-binding caucuses in 2012. And honestly, those are just the calendar headaches. There are a whole host of challenges that come up within state parties' processes and between state parties and the national parties every cycle that either never see the light of day in the news or are dealt with quietly before or during a convention. 

The national parties are set up to deal with these issues, but part of that, at least within the context of the presidential nomination process, is a function of the rules committees being mindful of what they have the power to affect. That is the position in which the DNCRBC finds itself on the cusp of finalizing its early window calendar for the 2024 presidential nomination cycle. They are, to bring up a line FHQ has borrowed/used often in the past, facing a decision over whether to control or manage the nomination process. 

As John Sununu said in addressing the crowd at the National Association of Secretaries of State conference that snowy day in DC, parties are better served when attempting to manage the process rather than control it. And shuffling the beginning of the primary calendar qualifies as an issue that straddles the line of that distinction. Again, if it was easy to make that change, then some one -- some party -- would have altered the beginning of the calendar in some earlier cycle. And it has not been for lack of trying that the calendar has remained largely unchanged. 

States have tried to jump in line. But New Hampshire and Iowa have proven more nimble in protecting their turf. 

The national parties have examined alternatives, but the Price Commission ended up pushing for additions to the early window rather than supplanting the two traditional lead off states. And Republicans jettisoned both the Delaware plan and the Ohio plan at their 2000 and 2008 conventions, respectively.

Against that backdrop, however, the DNCRBC stands on the cusp of maybe shaking things up as 2022 comes to a close. But this is just another step in the process. The DNC (or the RNC for that matter) can make whatever rules they like, but the states react to and within those rules. Well, the states ideally act within those rules. They have not all always done that in the past and state actors may not all follow suit in 2023 as preparation for 2024 ramps up across the board. 

Here are the pieces the DNCRBC is playing with entering their December meeting.

By all accounts, Iowa is on the way out in this latest round of DNC rules. The Hawkeye state may be written into Rule 12.A (or its 2024 equivalent) but it is very unlikely to be granted a slot 29 days before the first Tuesday in March as it has over the last several cycles. And it may be written out of the rule and thus the early window entirely. But the question may be less about whether Iowa is in those rules in some capacity and more about how Iowa Democrats react to any changes. 

The state party could lean on state law and merely follow state Republicans to whatever position they carve out for themselves at the beginning of the Republican process. But that likely will not be an easy sell with the DNCRBC when the state Democratic Party has to submit, defend and implement a delegate selection plan. That is even more true if Democrats in the state legislature make no moves -- futile though they may ultimately be with majority Republicans in control -- to attempt to move to a presidential primary election. No, that is not going to happen at all, but if Iowa Democrats are to defend themselves against potential sanctions from the DNCRBC, then they will have to take some demonstrable steps toward making a change. Sure, holding a party-run primary -- uh, caucus(-in-name-only) -- with open access is a good start, but not if the caucuses are held against DNC rules at the head of the line. 

In other words, just going with the flow (of tradition, not to mention Iowa Republicans) and thumbing their noses at the DNC is not a winning pitch. It would give the DNCRBC good reason to test out its new sanctions cutting off incentives for candidates to go anywhere near Iowa. Democrats in the state may hold caucuses, but it will be a largely meaningless, candidate-less sort of Ames Straw Poll on the Democratic side. Look, Iowa's results are already discounted in the current Democratic process. Going-first-at-all-costs is not going to make that better. 

The DNCRBC, then, seems to be on pretty firm ground with respect to dealing with most Iowa problems that may arise after the early calendar is set.

[Biden's letter more or less confirmed Iowa's caucuses were headed for the exits in the Democratic process. No, that correspondence did not call Iowa by name, but seemed to be the death knell for caucuses overall on the Democratic side. Reporting alongside the letter revelations confirmed the Biden team had nixed the Hawkeye state from its preferred early state targets.]

Making a strong push to replace Iowa as the first-in-the-nation contest is Nevada. The Silver state, based on the criteria created by the DNCRBC for this process, makes a strong case. There is diversity in the electorate. There is a small-ish media market in a smaller state that lends itself to the sorts of retail politics that both parties continue to value. There is (general election) competitiveness statewide. And an early Nevada contest is, most importantly, entirely feasible. Nevada has been in the early window since the 2008 cycle, has shifted to a primary (over the old caucuses that are out of vogue in the Democratic process) and it is already scheduled for an early date. The first Tuesday in February is just one day behind where Iowa has held its caucuses in the last two cycles. 

But the question is not really whether Nevada Democrats can fill the Iowa void and check all of the DNCRBC's boxes in the process. They can. Instead, the question is what other states do once Nevada is there. That and how the DNCRBC acts in response to those moves. 

It is possible, likely even, that Nevada Democrats leave this upcoming DNCRBC meeting having secured the top spot on the 2024 primary calendar in the rules. But that is a different matter than suggesting that Nevada will be the first contest once 2024 rolls around. 

Let's put a pin in that for a moment. 

[The reporting on the Biden team's thinking has suggested that Nevada and New Hampshire may be paired  (in the rules) if not on the same date on the calendar behind South Carolina, then during the same week. Nevada, of course, will now have a Republican governor who may be more concerned with the date relative to the Republican process. Nevada's current law sets the date of the newly established presidential primary for the first Tuesday in February, a date that is not compliant with RNC rules. Something will have to give if there is to remain just one consolidated presidential primary for both parties. That may mean one side opting into a compliant caucus, a compromise that funds to separate primary elections (one for each party) or a stalemate that preserves the status quo date and set up and leaves the state parties to figure out how to comply with national party rules.]

Yes, legislation to move the Michigan presidential primary to the second Tuesday in February -- a week after the current Nevada primary date -- recently glided through the state Senate. Yes, the midterms were good to the Great Lakes state in this context in that Democrats will now harness all the levers of power behind the setting of the presidential primary date. And yes, Michigan is seen as a suitable, more competitive, more diverse Midwestern state in Iowa. 

But Michigan has one mark against it that Minnesota Democrats, vying for a similar spot, have raised in recent days: it is too big, and too delegate-rich and too media market expensive as a result. That means that while Michigan may be in a good position to snag an early window spot -- replacing Iowa -- it may not be in line to claim the first spot on the calendar that Iowa has held for half a century. 

Sentiment still exists on the DNCRBC to ease into primary season with smaller states, giving all candidates a chance to compete and succeed. Take long time South Carolina DNC member, Carol Fowler:
“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.”
Or Ken Martin, the Minnesota DFL chair and DNCRBC member: 
In particular, Martin noted the number of delegates Michigan has, which correlates to the state’s population and Democratic vote share. The Minnesota party chair called it “too large for inclusion in the early state process,” noting that Michigan’s 139 delegates to the 2024 convention would be nearly as many delegates as the combined total from all three other current early states: New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. 
“With so many delegates being awarded to Michigan, it is easy to see future candidates skipping the rest of the early states altogether — to focus on a prize that delivers nearly as many delegates as all other early states combined,” Martin wrote. “This result would negate the expressed purpose [sic] of our early state strategy.”
Now, Martin is representing Minnesota here (and the overall process, too), but he is also fighting for the same spot Michigan is. But he is right and the tell about Michigan's place in the pecking order is in the description of candidates skipping states to focus on delegate-rich Michigan. Sure, strategically speaking, candidates may be wowed by the delegates at stake in Michigan, but there is no guarantee that any one candidate will net a big advantage coming out of the state. Nevertheless, that traditional sentiment exists which means that Michigan may make it into the early window, but that it would be toward the end before Super Tuesday. 

[Michigan got the nod from the Biden team to be the Iowa replacement. No, it will not be the first contest, but the Great Lakes state appears poised to be added to the back half of the early window]

Minnesota is in the conversation mainly because of the above, but the following hovers over even that:
“It does change the calculus,” a Democrat with knowledge of the discussions among national party leaders who requested anonymity to speak freely said after Michigan Democrats claimed a trifecta in the governor’s office and the two legislative chambers. “Michigan jumps over Minnesota, it’s just that simple. Minnesota was the fallback. Michigan is a key state.”
Unless the last-ditch "Michigan is too big" effort succeeds, then Minnesota is on the outside looking in on the Great Lakes state in this one. But perhaps it works and Minnesota replaces Iowa up front and the two bookend a five state early window. It is possible, but not probable.

[Minnesota was, in fact, the fallback option as the Midwestern replacement for Iowa.]

South Carolina Democrats have seemingly been in "don't rock the boat" mode for much of this process. Sure, there are more competitive southern states with large African American communities, but Georgia, while occasionally mentioned as a possible early state, did not mimic Michigan in the midterms. In the Peach state, it is the secretary of state who sets the date of the presidential primary. And Brad Raffensperger (R) won reelection in November. Plus, if Iowa gets the axe, tossing another state enshrined in the Republican process may be biting off more than the DNCRBC can chew. It would invite too much chaos between the two parties' processes. 

South Carolina already has two quiet factors in its favor. Jamie Harrison, the DNC chair, once chaired the Democratic Party in the Palmetto state for starters. And if Rep. Jim Clyburn (D) has any remaining chits to cash in with the president after his valuable pre-primary endorsement of Biden in 2020, then his voice may carry weight in this process as well.
But House Majority Whip 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 that 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.
Clyburn is mindful of the impact the South Carolina results have had on southern-tinged Super Tuesdays of the past. The majority African American constituency in South Carolina has signaled other similar states in the region in a number of past cycles. 

There may be a minor shuffle of sorts for South Carolina, but the Palmetto state looks to be secure in their first-in-the-South status for 2024.

[For the state that changed the trajectory of Biden's push for the 2020 nomination, the proposed changes represent both a minor shuffle and a major change. South Carolina's proposed shift from the fourth slot to the top is minor on the surface. But it would be a major frontloading of an African American constituency that has been the bedrock of the Democratic coalition for longer than Iowa has been the first state in the party's primary order. That is no small thing. 

As for the logistics of such a move, South Carolina is in the fortunate position of having long ago normalized separate presidential primaries for both parties. There are no start-up financial costs to this. Unlike, say, Nevada above, South Carolina Democrats have an ease of movement that nearly every other state does not. As such, a South Carolina Democratic primary in the first slot does not threaten Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire in the same way that any other primary state would. This was a part of the calculus when South Carolina was added to the early state roster for the 2008 cycle. And that has been a major part of why the Palmetto state is third in the Republican order and has been fourth on the Democratic side. It is also, in retrospect, a component of why the Biden team settled on South Carolina for the top slot. With divided government in Nevada after the 2022 elections, changing the rules in the Silver state to accommodate both Democratic and Republican processes got more difficult. And oddly enough, the shift from caucuses to a primary -- which the DNC prefers -- may have cost Nevada Democrats some ease of movement in this context.]

The Peach state has been mentioned as a possible addition to the early window in various reporting on the. DNCRBC's calendar deliberations over the course of the last year or so. But it always seemed like that chatter was on the fringe. Perhaps those were Biden insiders who kept bring Georgia up. That would make some sense.

Nevertheless, shifting Georgia into an early window position on the calendar is easier said than done as referenced in the South Carolina section above. Yes, Secretary Raffensperger (R), under law, has a fairly significant amount of latitude in setting the date of the Georgia presidential primary. There is a wide window from early January to mid-June in which he can schedule the contest. But Raffensperger has two major problems in aiding national Democrats in their wishes for an early window Georgia primary. First, there are RNC rules that would strip the Peach state Republican delegation of around 85 percent of its members -- a significant deterrent -- if the primary is before March 1. Additionally, the law does not allow the secretary to schedule two separate contests to accommodate both Democratic and Republican calendars. Perhaps, Georgia Democrats could lobby Raffensperger to exploit the loophole in RNC rules and move the primary to the Saturday before Super Tuesday on March 5. That would place Georgia just inside the backend of the early window in the Democratic process and still be compliant with Republican rules. With unified Democratic control, Michigan will not have to utilize that loophole. There is a freedom of movement there that Georgia does not have (although it would put Michigan Republicans in jeopardy with the RNC.]

Okay. Let's return to that pin from Nevada. 

If Michigan is likely to be slotted into a later early window spot and not the state most likely to threaten Nevada's ascent to the top of the calendar, then New Hampshire probably is. And New Hampshire may not pose any threat to Nevada at or coming out of this next DNCRBC meeting.

Again, Nevada Democrats may leave this meeting having secured the top slot under the new DNC rules. But the state may not end up first on the primary calendar when the votes start getting cast in 2024. The DNCRBC theoretically has a leg to stand on in dealing with Iowa. If the state party there crosses the DNC rules without having made some effort at remedying the situation (e.g.: proposing at a minimum legislation to shift the Hawkeye state to a primary), then they are unlikely to be able to avert national party sanctions. 

That, in turn, neuters Iowa, leaving Nevada and New Hampshire to spar for the first position. 

First of all, as the laws in both states stand now, New Hampshire is better able to move at a moment's notice. There is no official date until the secretary of state in the Granite state sets one. And that decision has been made as late as the week of Thanksgiving (in 2007 ahead of an early January primary). On the other hand, Nevada's date is set: the first Tuesday in February. The legislature there can change that date, but it tends to adjourn for the year in June. There could be a special session, but that seems unlikely. Governor-elect Lombardo (R) is not likely to call any such session for that purpose and the legislature does not have supermajority Democratic control (in the state Senate) to call such a session themselves. That avenue, then, is a dead end. 

Alternatively, the legislature during its 2023 session could cede the authority to set the date of the presidential primary. But mimicking New Hampshire and testing the limits of that move for the first time in a manner that is acceptable to election officials in the state with decreasing time and who will also be implementing a presidential primary for the first time is not exactly a recipe for success. It could happen, but the climb is steep

But what about the DNCRBC? If they can penalize Iowa, then they can penalize New Hampshire too. Maybe, but the conditions are different in the two states despite the fact that they have been lumped together in this process for 50 years. 

New Hampshire has been able to pull off consecutive, non-controversial primaries for several cycles now. Iowa cannot make that claim.

New Hampshire Democrats really have their hands tied on this matter. They are (happily) along for the ride. There is little the state Democratic Party can do if the secretary of state sets the date of the primary for some time that is earlier than and not compliant with DNC rules. Yes, there is a Republican in that position now, but that could change next week when the legislature selects the secretary of state. There is a Democratic challenger, but the legislature remains in Republican control.

New Hampshire could perhaps show demonstrable steps taken to remedy the situation by shifting to a caucus or party-run primary and scheduling it for later. But while that may fix the scheduling conflict, it runs against where the DNC is subtly pushing states: toward government-run primaries. And that may create new problems with implementing a new party-run process. Potentially making it harder for Democrats to vote in New Hampshire is also a dangerous path considering how competitive the state is and how valuable it is to Democrats' electoral college calculus. 

Together, those factors bode well for New Hampshire Democrats winning a later waiver from the DNCRBC than the exemptions to be written into the delegate selection rules now. Again, New Hampshire Democrats hands will have been tied and all routes to remedies cut off. Those are the conditions under which waivers are granted (by rule).

[Even after the Biden letter and the updated New Hampshire positioning underlying it, the Granite state outlook remains unchanged. It is unique in all of this because of the actors involved. Democrats there will be stuck with whatever date the secretary of state selects. And that will likely be before all the states but Iowa in the Republican order.]

Regardless of how this DNCRBC meeting comes out in DC, New Hampshire may once again rise to the top of the heap. The DNCRBC may win some points now for placing Nevada, for example, first, but it may take flak later if New Hampshire ends up in first again anyway without it being penalized. But in the end, the DNCRBC has to follow DNC rules. [Again, with South Carolina and not Nevada proposed in that first slot, there is still some jockeying to be done. But unlike Nevada, South Carolina's primaries split between parties provides a bit more wiggle room.]

And that is the trick in managing a presidential nomination system and not trying to control it. 


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