Sunday, April 30, 2023

Sunday Series: Have the Democrats Actually Created Calendar Chaos for 2024 and Beyond?

There have been a number of stories written over the last several months about the calendar rules changes the Democratic National Committee adopted at its winter meeting in Philadelphia back in February. And a number of them find the space to add a footnote about 2028. That, and this is a paraphrase, if Biden runs against only token opposition, then the calendar changes may not mean a whole lot in 2024 and may not last beyond then.

With President Biden officially announcing his reelection bid this past week, stories of that ilk have forced their way back onto the printed page, virtual or otherwise. That includes the narrow genre of "forfeiting New Hampshire" stories but also some broader overviews of the calendar changes that lean heavily on the uncertainty -- if not CHAOS! -- created by the DNC changes.1 Ben Jacobs had one such piece up at Vox in the wake of the president's announcement. 

First of all, let's clear the air. 2028 is a long way off. Much will happen between now and then. The events that occur will affect the next things that happen and so on. Yes, even all the way to 2028. It goes without saying, then, that this 2024 calendar trial run will have some impact on the rules that are ultimately adopted by the DNC for the 2028 cycle. But just how much impact?

After all, that is what 2024 is for Democrats: a trial run. It is a trial run that seems likely to occur under less than competitive conditions and offer little in the way of lessons that can be carried over into subsequent cycles. From a purely academic standpoint, the DNC is not going to learn much from moving South Carolina to the first position for 2024. Rules makers in the party will not be able to step back and say, for example, that the South Carolina primary was any more or less determinative in identifying a nominee in 2024 than it has been in the past. Now, that is not to say that there is not meaningful symbolism in the change at the top of the calendar, but rather, that the learning opportunities for the national party from the Iowa-for-South-Carolina swap in 2024 -- with the 2028 rules in mind -- are likely to be limited. 

But again, 2024 is a trial run and one that is unlikely to be completely devoid of learning opportunities for the national party. It is just that those chances will not come from how effective South Carolina was as a lead-off contest, or for that matter, what Michigan's primary would mean at the end of the pre-window period. Instead, the most learning will come from what has and is seemingly likely to dominate the stories of the Democratic nomination process at the outset in 2024: New Hampshire (and maybe Iowa) versus the DNC.

Any lesson gleaned from the 2024 process, then, is much more likely to come from the penalties side than anywhere else. And the early signals are that those penalties -- and the DNC -- will get a fairly stern test from New Hampshire if not Iowa. Democrats from the Hawkeye and Granite states have been quick since the winter meeting vote (but also since the December DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee (DNCRBC) adoption of the changes) to cite state laws that tie their hands with respect to (timing) compliance with the new calendar. And that foreshadows some lengthy brinkmanship in the weeks and months ahead.

Of course, there will be exit ramps along the way. The DNC adoption of the calendar rules, however, probably forestalls any retreat by the national party in the near term. But Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats will have to submit draft delegate selection plans (DSPs) to the DNCRBC in spring 2023. Democrats in the Granite state already have ahead of the May 3 deadline this coming week. However, ultimately the state parties will have to have those DSPs approved (or rejected) by the DNCRBC in the summer or early fall. If one or both of the state parties formally defy the rules in those draft DSPs or leave the contest date blank in them -- the latter is the route New Hampshire Democrats have chosen -- then that likely entrenches both sides even further. It is soon after that point that the DNCRBC is likely to not only apply the delegate penalties -- an automatic 50 percent reduction -- but to up them to a full 100 percent reduction of the delegation.

The temptation then is to fast forward to January 2024 when New Hampshire (and maybe Iowa) potentially hold rogue contests despite those national party penalties. However, that would miss a key component of the rules changes for this cycle: candidate penalties or rather, the result of potential candidate penalties. The president has thrown his hat in the ring for the Democratic nomination, and his team has already signaled that he intends to abide by the rules the party Biden leads adopted for the 2024 process. Part of those rules include a prohibition on candidates campaigning in states with rogue primaries and caucuses. And part of the new and broader definition of "campaigning" for 2024 is filing to appear on the ballot in a rogue state. 

Iowa and New Hampshire have already acquired one asterisk in the Democratic presidential nomination process because neither is as diverse as the national Democratic electorate. But Biden not being on the ballot would add another asterisk to any results in 2024 and subsequently hover over consideration of the traditionally early pair as possible early calendar states in future cycles. 

And while that may be, the counter to all of that has always been that Iowa and New Hampshire do not really have that many delegates anyway. Wins in either, it has often been said, are more about the wins themselves and resulting momentum they generate than they are about the delegates accrued. True, but the flip side of that -- the rejoinder to the not that many delegates response -- is that Iowa and New Hampshire do not have that many delegates

What the DNC has really done for 2024 is create uncertainty for future cycles. Theirs has been a destabilizing action. Neither Iowa nor New Hampshire are delegate-rich. Both are already discounted contests. Furthermore, both would take some additional hit if they go rogue in 2024 and more so when the president (likely) does not file to appear on the ballot in one or both states.2 Going rogue will, in turn, draw the ire of at least a portion of those among the DNC membership who will make future decisions on the calendar. [That says nothing of Iowa and/or New Hampshire laying the groundwork for some fringe candidate to win either or both rogue contests.]

If you are a prospective 2028 Democratic presidential candidate, are you going to be champing at the bit to get into the Granite state and start campaigning in 2026, for example? In some cases, yes! [Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) has already dropped in on the Granite state and plans to return next month.] It is a potential badge of honor to campaign against the national party establishment sometimes. That potentially carries with it some cachet that may move voters in and outside of New Hampshire (and/or Iowa). But it is not clear at this point that one candidate bucking the national party is going to start a rush into the Granite state given all the caveats above. 

Other deterrents 
The delegate penalties assessed on candidates by the national parties for campaigning in a rogue state are one thing that may buttress against that. But the history of the post-reform era has shown that there are other tools at the disposal of, if not the national party, then other early states. In fact, it was actors in Iowa and New Hampshire over the last half century who demonstrated the effectiveness of those alternative tools: pledges to boycott rogue states threatening the position of the early states.

Only, now the shoe is on the other foot, and it would be New Hampshire (and maybe Iowa) who are the threats and not the threatened in this and future cycles. What if South Carolina repeats as the DNC-sanctioned first state in 2028? Are candidates in a competitive 2028 field really going to snub Palmetto state Democrats to face voters in Iowa and New Hampshire? The better question is perhaps whether South Carolina Democrats will allow the candidates to campaign in rogue states without paying a price. That is what Iowa and New Hampshire have done over the years. They have used the protection of the DNC waiver (granting them early status) to effectively blackmail candidates. "Sign this pledge to stay out of that rogue state or you are done here (in Iowa or New Hampshire)." It has been a threat to kill a candidate's campaign before it really starts. 

That strategy has worked for the traditional early state duo in the past -- see 1996 or 2012 for a couple of examples -- and it can be used against them in the future (if they do not have sanctioned early status). And there is a strong argument that such efforts -- candidate pledges -- against Iowa and/or New Hampshire would be more effective because neither state is exactly reflective of the current Democratic primary electorate. One can imagine South Carolina Democrats, for example, asking candidates to sign a pledge to focus on the Palmetto state and the African Americans that make up the majority of the primary electorate there instead of spending any time in unrepresentative states like Iowa or New Hampshire. And it does not have to be just South Carolina. Nevada could be that first state. Any state that the DNC could feasibly get into the first slot in 2028 could utilize some variation on the candidate pledge that Iowa and New Hampshire have used in the past.

War of attrition
Now, if one is a prospective presidential aspirant for 2028, that is a lot to consider. Iowa and New Hampshire are already discounted in the Democratic nomination process. In the DNC rules for 2024, both have been knocked from the positions on the calendar each has held throughout the post-reform era. New Hampshire (and maybe Iowa) appear(s) likely to go rogue next year, which weakens the hand of Granite state Democrats (and potentially those from the Hawkeye state) in the resulting 2028 calendar rules discussions. Then there are penalties and potential pledges from/to officially sanctioned first states to consider in the next cycle.

From the candidate perspective, what is a win in New Hampshire (and/or Iowa) worth at that point? In other words, at what point does a contest become so discounted as to be next to meaningless? 

That is the long game the DNC is playing. The point -- the attempted point anyway -- is to discount any rogue state to the degree that is becomes meaningless to any (or most) prospective candidates. However, getting to that point hinges on the DNC doing something it has not done in the past: following through on the rules (and penalties) all the way through the national convention. 

Democrats in New Hampshire are banking on that happening again in 2024. That the DNC will cave, hand New Hampshire back its initial apportionment of delegates and seat them all at the national convention in the name of party unity. Yet, that is perhaps an uncritical view of the position the national party is in for the 2024 cycle. All of those past instances of threats to penalize Iowa and/or New Hampshire or to not seat their delegates at the national convention occurred in open and competitive nomination cycles. There was a greater need to not only demonstrate party unity to a viewing nation but to create it after fractious nomination processes. Caving was arguably more necessary.

But those are not the conditions of the 2024 cycle. President Biden is not running unopposed, but neither is he likely to face off against any viable alternatives. He and the national party under him have also orchestrated these changes to the rules for 2024, and it stands to reason that they -- and the national convention to nominate Biden -- would be more driven to see the rules through in order to establish (if not entrench) the new early calendar rotation. [Yes, New Hampshire is of some value to the Democratic coalition of states in the electoral college, but those four electoral votes are more expendable than, say, ten in Wisconsin, or 11 in Arizona or 16 in Georgia, to name a few other important states in that calculus. And yes, there are down-ballot implications too as mentioned in the footnotes.]

A cycle in which an incumbent is running for renomination and has instituted a new rules regime is maybe not the cycle to hope that the national party just caves again. 

Look, if some of the conditions of 2024 are unknown, then they are even more greatly unknown for 2028. Things could fall just right for an antiestablishment candidate, for instance, in the next cycle who could parlay a win in even a discounted rogue New Hampshire primary into something more. Still, that would be a very narrow path for a winning candidate to navigate through and become nominee given everything that continues to increasingly discount the contests in Iowa and New Hampshire within the Democratic presidential nomination process. 

But first thing first: The next step in this is how the DNCRBC reacts to the delegate selection plans from Iowa and New Hampshire when those deliberations commence over the next month or so. 

1 Incidentally, the calendar changes for 2024 will likely create some rogue states, but they will be a different kind of rogue state that is less likely to plunge the system into chaos. Some unnecessary headaches, sure. But chaos? That will take a lot more than a rogue New Hampshire primary and/or Iowa caucus.

2 "Some additional hit" is tough to define. In the context of New Hampshire in particular, the argument made there in the wake of national party calendar decisions has been that the Biden/DNC move to push the Granite state back in the order is only going to negatively affect Biden's chances in New Hampshire in the general election and hurt other New Hampshire Democrats down-ballot (but especially those holding federal office). It is a threat of mutually assured destruction -- from both sides. That will set off a battle to assign blame, the outcome of which is difficult to foresee.


No comments: