Saturday, February 4, 2023

DNC Adopts 2024 Primary Calendar Plan

As expected, the Democratic National Committee on Saturday adopted the calendar rules package brought before it by the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee (DNCRBC) at the party's winter meeting in Philadelphia.

Over the course of the general session, DNC members from both Iowa and New Hampshire rose in opposition to the changes that would remove the Hawkeye state from the early window altogether and replace the caucuses atop the Democratic presidential primary calendar with the South Carolina primary. However, other than a smattering of nays across the room, the proposed plan to reshape the early nomination calendar passed with near unanimous support. 

The vote brings to an end this chapter of the process. And it is an unusual end to the preliminary chapter the national parties write every four years. Typically in the Democratic process, the national party would have adopted all of its rules for the cycle by the time it held its midterm year summer meeting. And while the DNC did adopt the bulk of the 2024 rules in September 2022, it saved until after the midterm elections the decision concerning which states would receive waivers to hold pre-window contests. 

Moreover, that decision -- which states would be granted waivers -- broke with tradition as well. Rather than continue with the process in place since 2006 of automatically awarding waivers to Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, the DNC opened up the process in 2022 to any state Democratic party that wanted to pitch the DNCRBC on why it should be included in the early calendar. 20 states and territories, including the four traditional carve-outs, applied and 17, again, including the four traditionally early states, were invited to make presentations to the DNCRBC in the summer of 2022.

The criteria the DNCRBC operated under during that process were simple enough. The panel sought states that offered diversity (racial, regional and economic), competitive battlegrounds where primary stage campaigning would potentially pay dividends in a general election and afforded a feasibility of primary or caucus movement. Most of the traditional carve-outs had issues. Iowa, following a challenging 2020 caucuses, was already up against it without the additional strain of the party's diversity focus. New Hampshire was too. South Carolina did not fit the mold in terms of general election competitiveness. Only Nevada, a state that had already shifted from a caucus system to state-run primary before 2022 -- another preference of the national party dating back to the 2020 cycle -- seemed to tick all of the boxes.

But again, it was unusual that the national party waited until after the midterms to select the early state lineup for the 2024 calendar. Yet, with control of state governments at stake in those elections, feasibility of movement for a number of applicants was in question.

As the midterms passed, Democrats were left in control in a number of states, but the White House had yet to publicly share its thoughts on the rules; typically an integral component in any in-party's calculus. The precedent set throughout much of the post-reform era has been for presidents to more or less carry over the same rules that got them the nomination in the first place. But on the eve of the DNCRBC meeting to adopt a waivers package for early 2024 states, the Biden White House broke with that protocol, proposing to push Iowa's caucuses out of the early window and shunt New Hampshire into a slot alongside one primary (Nevada) and behind another (South Carolina). 

And that is where things stand after the full DNC has vote in favor of the calendar changes. South Carolina and Nevada are locked in and Michigan has passed legislation to move its primary into the February 27 position called for in the new DNC rules.1 And in that regard, the DNC is ahead of schedule (in some respects) compared to other cycles. Three of the five early states are locked into position without risk of further maneuvering because of the actions of states around them in the pre-window. That should tamp down on calendar chaos to some degree as 2023 progresses.

As this phase -- the national party phase -- of the rules process (mostly) comes to a close, that is where the Democratic side is. [The Republican process continues to have Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, in that order, as the lead-off states on its calendar.] Three early states are in position on the Democratic primary calendar as February 2023 begins, and two states are not. Georgia and New Hampshire now have until June 3 to comply with the DNC waiver requirements or forfeit those waivers and their positions on the early calendar.  

Democratic state parties will begin in the next month or two to publicly share their draft delegate selection plans before finalizing them and sending them off to the DNCRBC by May 3 for review and approval. Although there remains a national party component, this is the state/state party phase of the rules sequence. Much will be said about Georgia and New Hampshire until June, but other states will be maneuvering with respect to their rules (state parties) and calendar positions (mainly state governments).

But it should not be lost on anyone what the Democratic National Committee has done. It has not only broken with its regular rhythms for setting the pre-window lineup of states, it has completely revamped that lineup. And that is a big deal. It is a big deal considering the stink that New Hampshire has already raised and the backlash that Granite state Democrats and those in Iowa will likely to continue to push in this next phase if not into 2024. That entrenched duopoly has proven difficult for national parties to combat because the wherewithal simply is not typically there. Internally (within the party electorate) popular incumbent presidents usually want to glide to renomination in order to prepare for a grueling reelection campaign. Those administrations do not typically invite trouble. In some respects, however, that is what the Biden administration and DNC have done. Yet, that is exactly the sort of "low stakes" environment needed to make those types of rules changes; when the competition is low and new precedents can be set with future cycles in mind. That is what is at stake moving forward and why the DNC is likely to dig in just as much as Iowa and New Hampshire are.  

Below is a live thread on the DNC winter meeting general session when the party was considering the calendar package. 

1 There is a further implementation complication that will require the Michigan legislature to wrap up its business earlier than usual in 2023 so that the primary bill can take effect in time for the presidential primary in the Great Lakes state to actually fall on February 27.

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