Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Delaware as a Pre-Window Calendar Stand-in on Standby? On Threats, Substitutes and Calendar Shake-Ups

It was reported in the time after January 5 that Delaware was being used as a cudgel to help the DNC/White House nudge New Hampshire Democrats closer to compliance with the president's primary calendar plan adopted by the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee (DNCRBC) in December. As Jake Luhut wrote at The Daily Beast then: 
"The proposal? Not only should South Carolina go first, but if New Hampshire won’t acquiesce to the Democratic National Committee’s demands, Biden’s home state of Delaware should also leapfrog New Hampshire as further punishment."
Well, Delaware "leapfrogging" New Hampshire into the pre-window of the Democratic primary calendar would not exactly be "further punishment." January 5, after all, was the deadline that South Carolina, Nevada, New Hampshire, Georgia and Michigan -- the states granted contingent waivers to go early in 2024 at the December 2 DNCRBC meeting -- were given to show progress on state-specific goals toward the calendar changes called for in the adopted proposal. New Hampshire was obviously given a list of requirements that were, to put it mildly, a tall order considering Republicans control the levers of power in the state (and thus the ability to change anything to do with the first-in-the-nation primary). The Delaware threat was less a threat and more a reality. If New Hampshire Democrats cannot meet the requirements for the waiver they were conditionally given in December, then they will not have a waiver at all under DNC rules for 2024. Delaware is not the "further punishment." New Hampshire Democrats not getting a waiver like every other year following the 1980 cycle is. Actually, that is the punishment. "Further punishment" will likely come from the DNCRBC should 1) the DNC adopt some version of the president's calendar proposal at its February winter meeting and 2) New Hampshire Democrats continue to strike a defiant pose on the first-in-the-nation primary thereafter.

But why Delaware? 

Yes, it is President Biden's home state. And while that may be part of the calculus for those in the White House, it is not the only part or even the main part of the thinking. 

Like New Hampshire, Delaware is small. Retail politics would be just as possible there as they are in the Granite state. 

Both states lag the national average on the Census Bureau's diversity index (61.1%), but Delaware (59.6%) is less than two points shy while New Hampshire (23.6%) falls nearly 40 points short. 

However, unlike New Hampshire, Delaware is no presidential battleground in the general election. There are some tradeoffs on that front in view of campaign advertising/spending. Swapping Boston media market buys to advertise in New Hampshire for Philadelphia buys to target First state primary voters is an interesting exchange. The former has the benefit of priming New Hampshire primary voters with the general election in mind, but the latter would hit voter not only Delaware voters but Pennsylvania voters ahead of a primary in the Keystone state and a fight for more electoral votes (relative to New Hampshire) in the general election there as well. 

Plus, what Delaware lacks in general election competitiveness relative to the Granite state, it makes up for in feasibility of movement. New Hampshire cannot comply with the likely DNC rules and may or may not try to find alternatives in the end. A Democratic-controlled state government in Dover can and likely very happily would bend over backwards to work toward a pre-window presidential primary if granted a waiver by the DNCRBC. 

But FHQ tends to agree with the anonymous Democratic strategist who questioned the optics of an earlier Delaware primary in the Daily Beast piece:
“I don’t know what value that adds. It’s not a demographically diverse state, it’s not a significantly cheaper media market,” the strategist said. 
“I don’t know if the University of Delaware is gonna become the new Saint Anselm, which is probably the best analogy, but I just don’t see the point,” they continued. “There’s nothing to this that makes this more valuable, and the tourism argument for early primary states is overblown. The TV one is the strongest, because it’s the most sustained form of revenue for these states.”
All of that aside, DNCRBC member, Elaine Kamarck, said it better this past summer after the panel had heard the early primary pitch from the Delaware delegation. Basically, a president has nothing to gain and everything to lose in a home state contest that is first in the order. At best (for the incumbent president), no one shows up as with Tom Harkin in Iowa in 1992. In that case, Delaware would be little more than a beauty contest first primary that most candidates would skip. At worst (again, for the incumbent president), other candidates do show up and either win outright or relative to what would be low expectations. In that case, Delaware would win, but the president would not. 

Of course, Kamarck's comments were about Delaware as the first contest to which Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), as a part of the state's delegation before the DNCRBC, countered that Delaware was not vying only for the first spot, but for any one of the available slots in the pre-window. And maybe Kamarck's rules apply in that situation -- a slightly later early Delaware presidential primary -- or maybe they do not. It could also be that President Biden, with or without a pre-window Delaware primary, runs largely unopposed in 2024 and that this whole effort is not to secure his renomination but geared more toward a paradigm shift in how the pre-window part of the calendar is devised every four years. 

And that is kind of the thing. Viewed through the lens of a White House seeking renomination in an environment where it is largely unopposed is the sort of confluence of conditions a national party would need in place to make any big change to the beginning of the presidential primary calendar. 

Well, that and said national party would have to be willing to take on Iowa and New Hampshire. The DNCRBC, before the president weighed in, seemed willing to shunt Iowa out of the pre-window. But the president's input added New Hampshire to that mix. Both directly and indirectly.1 Again, the DNCRBC set a difficult set of criteria before New Hampshire Democrats. But they have a chance at an early window waiver (just not one in the position they want or that they could comply with, they would argue). They could give an inch, but have not. Yet. And New Hampshire Democrats may concede nothing. They seem willing at this point to let this play out, take their punishment (if the DNC can enforce it), and try to live to see another cycle in 2028 with a new membership on the DNCRBC.

But all of this -- pushing South Carolina to the first spot, nixing Iowa, trying to bend New Hampshire to the calendar change, substituting Delaware (or Iowa back) into the pre-window, or even adding Georgia and Michigan -- comes with trade-offs. That gets lost in all the post-January 5 chatter about New Hampshire. 

Yes, there is something to be gained by opening up the pre-window to any state that wants to pitch their virtues to the DNCRBC every four years. That gives the national party the flexibility to add and subtract states based on the criteria the DNCRBC has leaned on this cycle. If Nevada, for example, becomes less competitive in general elections, then add Arizona. If Georgia elects more Democrats to statewide office (like secretary of state), then replace South Carolina with the Peach state. If New Hampshire becomes more diverse (in addition to being a battleground), then keep it around or officially add it back. That flexibility is, in the abstract, a good thing for the national party. ...if it can overcome the start-up costs and establish it in the first place.  

However, there is something lost in that transition and it is not just tradition. The continuity of Iowa and New Hampshire every cycle was (and is in the Republican process) arguably a good thing as well for the national parties and for the candidates. There has been certainty there, and with that certainty comes knowledge, or if not knowledge, then an understanding about the rhythms of the nomination system; how it works. And that is true even when the first two states are not well aligned with the overall constituency of a party's primary electorate. 

The path of least resistance for the DNCRBC this cycle would have been to leave well enough alone -- as has almost always been the case for national parties with incumbent presidents seeking reelection -- and just add Michigan to the end of the four state lineup that has existed in the Democratic presidential nomination process since 2008. Iowa and New Hampshire are not perfect fits for the party, but they have the infrastructure in place to dependably go first. Well, maybe not Iowa after 2020. But even after that, there would have been an even greater asterisk placed by Iowa and would continue to place one on New Hampshire. Again, as FHQ has argued elsewhere in this space, the results in those two contests are discounted in the Democratic process. Voters know they are not representative of the broader party. The media knows it and discusses the results in that context and that affects how candidates approach and, afterward, talk about those two contests.

And Raymond Buckley, chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, even talked about a version of this in his recent conversation with Politico, saying basically that New Hampshire winnows the field and sets up a state like South Carolina to be decisive. That has not been untrue. And if that is the case, then why mess with a system that, on some level, works?

Mainly, the answer lies in the fact that the current system with the same old calendar was no longer tenable to the president, major parts of the DNCRBC and likely DNC. The DNCRBC did adopt the calendar proposal with just two dissenting votes -- the two members from Iowa and New Hampshire. And the reactions from folks of color on the panel, from members to the DNC chair, spoke volumes about the meaning of the proposed change. 

That is why some version of the president's plan will be adopted next month in Philadelphia. It has been a process that has involved trade-offs with the same old calendar and will likely have some more as the DNCRBC and the rest of the party seeks to fill out the rest of the pre-window lineup should there be vacancies created by a rogue New Hampshire. Perhaps that will be Delaware. ...or perhaps not. Maybe Georgia cannot get there. Maybe it can. Things remain in flux as the party heads into its winter meeting.

1 The president's proposal directly hit New Hampshire by not placing the presidential primary in the Granite in the first position on the calendar. But it indirectly knocked the state by erecting a significant set of barriers for New Hampshire Democrats to successfully win a pre-window waiver.

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