Thursday, February 2, 2023

How Much Will Democrats' Primary Calendar Change Away from Iowa Affect the Overall Process?

Thursday's episode of the New York Times podcast, The Daily, raised the curtain on changes the Democratic National Committee (DNC) are about to make to the party's presidential primary calendar this weekend in Philadelphia. In A Revolution in How Democrats Pick a President, host Michael Barbaro and Times national political reporter, Adam Nagourney, detailed the important role the Iowa caucuses have played in past Democratic presidential nomination races and what a shift away from that -- from that early calendar tradition -- might mean for 2024 and beyond. And their conversation dipped into familiar territory for those who read this site with any regularity: the unintended consequences of national party rules changes in the presidential nomination process.

Only, the discussion landed on a narrative that pitted diversity gains against retail politics lost. There are definitely trade-offs to the altered primary calendar lineup the DNC is on the cusp of adopting this weekend, but it is not clear that this is one of them. But it was not just about retail politics. The basic story Barbaro and Nagourney told was one of the post-1968 changes to the Democratic presidential nomination process. It was that classic story of the nomination decision being pulled out of smoke-filled rooms and out of the hands of party bosses, decentralized and given over to rank-and-file voters in primaries and caucuses. Losing Iowa and replacing it with South Carolina, in their telling, is to take a step away from a system in which every candidate has a chance. And if one has followed any of the backlash from New Hampshire since the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee adopted the calendar change proposal in December, that should be a familiar storyline. 

But telling the story the South Carolina for Iowa swap in that frame ignores a number of important factors.  First, focus on the states involved. There is now half a century's worth of stories like Jimmy Carter's or Barack Obama's in Iowa; stories of them and countless other candidates of both parties meeting voters, shaking hands, kissing babies and hearing policy concerns. There is a certain mythology that has built up around it all. And that mythology is a part of the fabric of the presidential nomination process in the United States. 

Yet, it is not as if South Carolina has not been a part of the early calendar -- since 1980 on the Republican side and since 2008 in the Democratic process -- and developed its own style of retail politics; its own stories. And even though South Carolina has been behind Iowa and New Hampshire in the order, as the process has become increasingly nationalized, candidate campaign footprints in states deeper into the calendar (like South Carolina and Nevada) have only grown. Yes, South Carolina is larger than Iowa in population, but it is not as if national Democrats were moving California's primary to the front of the queue. 

Second, and on a related note, the emphasis Barbaro and Nagourney place on method of delegate selection -- primary or caucus -- lacked context as well. Part of the story they told was one of trading in the intimacy of the caucuses in Iowa for a primary in a larger state where candidates would inevitably have to focus on advertisements to reach more primary voters. Well, that leaves out the fact that the DNC has been moving away from caucuses for at least the last two cycles. 2020 saw just three states with caucuses before the pandemic hit. And in attempting to protect their first-in-the-nation position on the calendar for 2024, Iowa Democrats had pledged to move to an all-mail, absentee system for the "caucuses." In 2024, Iowa is not even going to be the Iowa of old depicted in the podcast. 

In making those changes, Democrats at both the national and state level have been and are moving toward more participation and less of what Barbaro and Nagourney called the "intimacy" of the caucus process. But that confuses the intimacy of the assembled caucus process with the closeness of retail politics. Some of that may, in fact, be lost in the transition from Iowa to South Carolina. But one does not yet know how much, if any, that will change in 2024. There has not been a cycle in the post-reform era in which Iowa and New Hampshire have not led the pack, and thus no baseline for comparison. And again, South Carolina is not California, and it is smaller than Iowa in terms of area. Retail politics can happen, and has happened, in the Palmetto state.

Look, this calendar change the DNC is likely to adopt in the coming days is a BFD. Lost retail politics and decreased odds of the little guy rising to the nomination may be part of those changes. some degree.

But that will not be apparent that from a largely uncontested Democratic nomination race in 2024. There may be some shift to the air war over the ground war as it were, but it is not like the party is completely abandoning the concept of an on ramp to the nomination that starts in small states. After all, the beginning of the proposed calendar is still composed of small states. One could argue about the cluster of early, small contests in the first four days with respect to retail politics. But that is far less likely to be of much consequence when the president is likely to seek the Democratic nomination again and do so with (probably) only token opposition.

And to be honest, any decrease in the chances of the Jimmy Carter's of the world in future presidential nomination races is probably less about party elites replacing Iowa and more about the ongoing nationalization of the nomination process; something that the national parties are limited to control anyway.

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