Thursday, December 8, 2022

Why South Carolina Got the Nod to Lead the 2024 Democratic Calendar

It has been a while since the national parties have either allowed states other than Iowa and New Hampshire to go first on the presidential primary calendar or have failed to expressly protect the traditional first pair in their rules. 

In fact, the entire post-reform era since the 1972 cycle has operated that way in both parties' processes. Now, to be clear, states have challenged Iowa and New Hampshire throughout that period, but the two have always been able to maneuver around those threats on their own -- banded together in first-in-the-nation solidarity or individually -- or in recent years, have kept their spots, protected by national party rules. 

The decision by the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee (DNCRBC) late last week to adopt the proposal put forth by the president stripped Iowa of its position and effectively/indirectly did the same to New Hampshire. Instead of the usual two states at the front of the queue, South Carolina got the green light to move up from the fourth and final spot in the pre-window -- the one that the Palmetto state has held in the Democratic nomination process since the 2008 cycle -- all the way up to the top slot. 

President Biden's late input on the DNCRBC process to award waivers to four or five states to lead the 2024 calendar upset the emerging consensus that Nevada and New Hampshire were the states vying for the honor of going first. The proposition also set off a flurry of chatter that South Carolina received the prized spot because the state had rescued his primary campaign in 2020 and/or that it was meant as a favor to Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC, 6th), whose endorsement appeared instrumental in the days leading up to the late February primary in the Palmetto state. That all may be, but it is not anything that is foreign to this process. Incumbent presidents tend to support the rules -- calendar and otherwise -- that got them to the nomination, and Biden has done just that, at least in part. 

Is that intended to insulate himself against a primary challenge? Again, that would not be a foreign concept. Jimmy Carter's team nudged state legislators in several states -- notably in the South -- to shift their primaries to earlier dates during the 1980 cycle to counter expected (Ted) Kennedy wins in the northeast. And just last cycle, the Trump campaign leaned on a number of states to shift from primaries to caucuses (or to cancel contests altogether) in order to produce electorates likely to minimize or eliminate any opposition success.

The only catch in the 2024 discussion is that there is no looming (and legitimate) challenge to Biden on the horizon. Of course, there is plenty of time for that to change and besides, the president may -- although it does not appear that way at this time -- pass on a reelection bid.

Nonetheless, the South Carolina ascension has "reignited tensions" in the Democratic Party that has some crying foul. And at least some of that is based on the perceptions that some of the above historically consistent actions by incumbent presidents are now wrong in some way. Others have pointed to the Palmetto primary as a poor lead off contest because the state is a virtual lock for Republicans in the electoral college. 

That criticism is all entirely fair. 

But is also overlooks some of the very real and practical reasons that South Carolina ended up first in the proposal. 

To examine this further, let's look at the DNCRBC's own criteria for states to attain an early window waiver. Early on in the process before applications for waivers were submitted, the DNCRBC highlighted diversity, competitiveness and feasibility as markers the panel would use in considering states for potential waivers.

South Carolina hits the mark for the most part on diversity. That African Americans comprise a majority of the primary electorate there was clearly something the committee and the president prized as a component of raising minority voices in the process. That is basically why the state was added to the early state lineup for 2008. The state is a nice mix of urban, suburban and rural as well, and is also relatively economically diverse. However, South Carolina is a right-to-work state, which is a knock on the state in a party that values unions/labor interests. Finally, South Carolina is a southern state and has been the lone representative from the South among the first four states since 2008. 

Let's pause there because South Carolina is not the only southern state from which the DNCRBC could have chosen. And, in fact, the committee also designated neighboring Georgia to also appear in the pre-window. But this factors in elsewhere.

Nope, South Carolina is not a competitive general election state for Democrats. Organizing there for the primaries and not simultaneously preparing for the general election seems like something of a sunk cost (or at the very least an inefficient use of finite resources). That is why the committee had targeted competitive states. So South Carolina does not fit the bill there. 

If one looks at the checklist above, South Carolina has a couple of checks by racial diversity and regional diversity (across the whole lineup of early states). That is neither an exhaustive nor overwhelming list of positives in the favor of South Carolina Democrats. But recall that the primary reason driving the DNCRBC decision in July to punt on the final early calendar lineup until after the midterms was that state were still working on “answering several final but critical questions regarding election administration and feasibility in their states.”

So, to return to the question from above, why South Carolina and not some other southern state? Feasibility.

There are roadblocks in the way of the DNRBC adding another southern state other than South Carolina. Much of it has to do with partisan composition of state government. Republicans dominate most states in the region and have an interest in following RNC rules that forbid states other than Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada from holding contests before March 1. 

Here's how that looks (based on what entity makes the decision on the date and administration of a primary election):
Alabama: unified Republican control of state government
Arkansas: unified Republican control of state government
Florida: unified Republican control of state government
Georgia*: Republican secretary of state
Kentucky: Republican legislature
Louisiana: Republican legislature
Mississippi: unified Republican control of state government
North Carolina: Republican legislature
Oklahoma: unified Republican control of state government
South Carolina*: state parties select the date for their own state government-run (and funded) primary
Tennessee: unified Republican control of state government
Texas*: unified Republican control of state government
Virginia: Republican governor
West Virginia: unified Republican control of state government

*States among the 20 states and territories that actually applied for a waiver from the DNCRBC.

Very simply, South Carolina is maximally maneuverable in the Democratic process compared to all of the other southern states, much less those that applied. 

That maneuverability also likely played a role in South Carolina getting the call over another diverse state that had high hopes of vaulting to the top slot, Nevada. Again, South Carolina Democrats, under state law, can move to a position on the calendar of their choosing with no input from Republicans who control the state government there. 

The midterms changed the calculus in Nevada. The formerly unified Democratic government in the Silver state became divided when Republican Joe Lombardo won the gubernatorial race in November. That meant that Nevada was most likely stuck with the February 6, 2024 date for its newly established presidential primary. Democrats could not move it earlier because Lombardo would not be inclined to take on possible RNC penalties. Ironically, the switch to a primary that was seen as a feather in the cap of Nevada Democrats in this waiver process came back to haunt them. Under a caucus system like the state had in 2020, Nevada Democrats would have been much better able to move around to suit any date the DNCRBC may have placed them in (...although the committee, the president and the party as a whole have largely rejected caucuses in the Democratic nomination process).

In the end, political favoritism may have played some role in the South Carolina Democratic primary rising to the top, as did diversity, but feasibility was also a major, major component in the reasoning behind the move. 

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