Sunday, May 21, 2023

Sunday Series: Biden, Incumbent Presidents and Setting the Rules of Renomination

This past week has been a week in which Iowa, New Hampshire and the 2024 presidential primary calendar have come back into clearer view. 

Iowa Republicans are reported to be simultaneously planning on January caucuses, but lamenting the uncertainty that Hawkeye state Democrats have thrust upon the overall scheduling process by insisting on a vote-by-mail presidential preference vote.

In New Hampshire, Democrats continue to 1) resist DNC calendar changes that would push the state out of the first primary position in 2024 and 2) refuse to consider alternatives to a "predicament ... of the president's own making."

And to compound matters, Biden surrogate and 2020 nomination kingmaker Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) recently "said the quiet part out loud," noting that the DNC calendar changes for 2024 were made with Biden "avoiding embarrassment" in Iowa and New Hampshire in mind.

Dems in disarray, right? What is the party doing?

Well, outside of the takes generator that is spitting out tales of Democratic own goals with respect to the national party and the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination process, there are a few big picture things going on that many are glossing over. Most of it is typical of incumbent parties defending the White House and some of it is new to 2024. 

Coalition maintenance
The macro view of what the Democrats have done and are doing for the 2024 cycle is twofold. First, the Biden administration and the Democratic National Committee under it are doing what big tent parties tend to do. Namely, the party is tending to constituencies in an effort to maintain the winning coalition from 2020. And some of that, through a zero-sum lens, is the messy business of picking winners and losers, choosing which policies and other actions to prioritize. 

So, there has been a push to continue to appeal to black and brown voters who are the bedrock of the party's coalition. Voting rights and criminal justice reform met resistance in Congress, but the Biden administration advanced the cause of representation on the nation's highest court by seeing the nomination of Ketanji Brown-Jackson through to her installation, thus fulfilling a campaign promise. Along the same lines, the president pushed for a change in the early calendar lineup of states for the first time since the 2008 cycle. And importantly, the administration once again attempted to elevate the voices of black and brown voters in the nomination process by supplanting Iowa and New Hampshire with South Carolina in the lead-off spot. 

But beyond mere constituency concerns on that calendar decision, there were clear winners and losers. South Carolina won. Michigan won. Iowa and New Hampshire, on the other hand, both lost. Each lost, and in New Hampshire's case, Democrats there were resistant and have remained defiant. And while the national party decision was perhaps out of the ordinary, the reaction in the Granite state has not been. And while that reaction has added some drama (and the attention that comes along with it) to an incumbent presidential renomination process that is unlikely to offer much of it, it does once again point out just how difficult it is to alter institutions that have long since become normalized fixtures of the presidential election process. 

Again, if it was easy to change, then any number of component parts of the presidential nomination process -- including but not exclusively Iowa and New Hampshire -- would have been changed by now. Grumbling about Iowa, New Hampshire and their positions atop the presidential primary calendar is not new. It did not just start in 2020 when Iowa Democrats botched their caucuses. That grousing goes back years

However, the extent to which the subject has arisen between elections has ebbed and flowed, but it always comes up. In some years, like between 2004 and 2008, the party examined it closely. The result was that Nevada and South Carolina got added to the early window (and before the fallout from Florida and Michigan, Nevada's Democratic caucuses were to have been between Iowa and New Hampshire). In other cycles, such as between 2008 and 2012, Iowa and New Hampshire came up but the Rules and Bylaws Committee punted, saving the battle for another time.  

But to reiterate, it always comes up. And that pre-2012 example is instructive. That was the last cycle that a sitting Democratic president was seeking renomination. Theoretically, the stakes are lower in those times than they are or would be in a competitive nomination environment. It is then, or in the case of the 2024 cycle, now that a change in the early calendar would hypothetically be easiest. And it may, in fact, be easier than if this were a seriously contested cycle, but uprooting Iowa and New Hampshire is by no stretch of the imagination easy. If anything, Team Biden is bearing witness to just how not easy it is right now. 

So why take on the task of changing the calendar at all? 

Well, coalition maintenance is one answer. Creating a more representative early calendar lineup of states is and has been a long-time priority to some within the broader Democratic Party network. And just like changing the superdelegate rules for the 2020 cycle, it was not only a priority but there was sufficient support for the reform within the DNC. Yet, unlike the case of the superdelegate reform -- thorny as that was -- reforming the early calendar is not completely within the jurisdiction of the national party. Ultimately, credentialing and seating delegates from a state that has followed its state law and happens to be rogue relative to national party rules is within the DNC (or the convention's) purview, but bringing that to fruition and keeping Democrats from said rogue (and aggrieved) state out is a long process with a number of potential pressure points along the way that makes it politically difficult. 

It may be that Iowa and New Hampshire's time has simply come. But Iowa and, to a seemingly larger degree, New Hampshire will have something to say about that. 

Strategic considerations
Perhaps, then, the coalition maintenance hypothesis is not fully adequate to answer the "why take this task on now?" question. Maybe there are strategic concerns too. But even that explanation seems dubious. Before all of this, it was not exactly clear that Iowa and New Hampshire were going to make life, much less renomination, difficult for President Biden in 2024. No challengers of any great import were champing at the bit to throw their hats in the ring and attempt to dethrone a sitting Democratic president. Sure, California Governor Gavin Newsom and Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker were both doing some of the things that potential presidential aspirants do, but it is also difficult to tease out whether that was midterm campaign activity/surrogacy or something else (like laying the groundwork in case Biden did not run). It also is not clear that either governor shut the door on a run (and have subsequently joined Biden's reelection advisory board) because Team Biden made the calendar "harder" for challengers. The calendar change was merely another signal that the president intended to run and that in supporting the change, the DNC was behind him. All this despite the fact that the guessing game on whether Biden would run persisted well into 2023 after the initial DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee vote on the calendar. 

But take a step back for a moment. How common is it for sitting presidents and their parties to create favorable conditions for a renomination bid? The answer is that it is quite common. And it is probably better cast as reducing token resistance rather than some nefarious attempt to squelch democracy. 

In the past, all of this has mainly fallen into two categories: not holding primary debates and cancelling or downscaling contests (cancelling caucuses or shifting from primaries to caucuses). Both parties have done this. When was the last time an incumbent party sponsored a presidential primary debate? The RNC went so far as to eliminate the national party rule calling for a committee to sanction debates in 2020 only to bring it back for 2024. And yes, Republican state parties cancelled or downscaled a number of contests for the 2020 cycle, but those were not precedent-setting actions. Instead, it was par for the course. It is so commonplace that one almost has to skip incumbent years in gathering time-series data on presidential primaries (depending on the research question). In my own research on the movement of primaries and caucuses, it is next to useless to account for incumbent party years. State parties opting out of state-run primaries and primaries being cancelled because of only one candidate making the ballot make it nearly impossible. 

And how does the DNC look on both of those fronts for 2024? For starters, there are no plans for primary debates. But it is a funny thing on cancelled and downscaled contests. It is more difficult now than it has ever been to do either in a Democratic presidential nomination contest. Notice that Iowa Democrats are not talking about cancelling the caucuses like Republicans in the Hawkeye state did in 2020 to avoid any of the calendar messiness that has supposedly gripped the 2024 Democratic process. In fact, Iowa Democrats are going in the opposite direction. The party is planning on making the caucuses meaningless with respect to delegate allocation and adding a presidential preference vote(-by-mail) to allocate delegates. No states are planning on cancelling caucuses. There are none left now that Iowa and Nevada off the board. [Wyoming Democrats cannot decide if the party wants to call their process in 2024 a caucus or a party-run primary.] 


DNC encouragements added to Rule 2 for 2020 require state parties to provide for open and accessible contests. Parties have to demonstrate in their delegate selection plans that they are doing all they can to create the most open and accessible process possible. And state parties have heeded that guidance in practice in 2020 and in draft delegate selection plans for 2024. 

As a result of that rules change, the DNC and Team Biden did not have cancelling or downscaling contests as an option to potentially help streamline the process against token opposition. One avenue available as a streamlining opportunity, however, was the primary calendar order. And there, the options were limited. The status quo was an option. The path of least resistance in setting the rules was always to keep Iowa and New Hampshire as the lead-off contests (or shunt Iowa out of the early window because of 2020 and move New Hampshire up).

But does an incumbent president and/or the national party behind them want to leave to chance the start of a nomination process in two states where the president did not even win during the previous nomination cycle (even against token opposition in the coming cycle)? It certainly could all work out. But it could also be a situation like President Lyndon Johnson failing to meet expectations in New Hampshire in 1968 despite winning. And it is worth pointing out that Donald Trump still has not won the Iowa caucuses. He lost in 2016 and the caucuses were cancelled for 2020. Biden does not have the luxury, under DNC rules, of Iowa Democrats simply cancelling their caucuses next year. 

No, the alternative was to explore an alternative early calendar lineup, something the DNC Rules and Bylaws was already considering through a process that eliminated for 2024 guaranteed spots for traditional early states. It was a process open to any an all states that wanted to make a pitch. And the Biden administration took that opening -- the process of states applying for those early slots -- to swing for the fences.

They pushed a plan that placed South Carolina first, the first state the former vice president had won in 2020. But that was not exactly the driver behind the calendar decision. Shifting African American voices to an earlier position on the calendar was a priority but the options were limited in terms of states that the DNC could feasibly get into place. Look at the Georgia experience. Try as they might, Democrats nationally and in Georgia could not convince a Republican secretary of state to commit to the plan to add the Peach state to the mix. And the same would have been true for any other southern state with high levels of black and brown voters. Republican-controlled state governments stood in the way.

The exception?

South Carolina. Since the date-setting authority in the Palmetto state is in the hands of the state parties, the South Carolina primary could be moved into an even earlier position on the calendar with relative ease. 

This is not some grand conspiracy. The whole process has been one that, in part, has done what past incumbent presidents have done. However, due to rules changes on the Democrats side, the Biden team could not do exactly what past incumbents running for renomination have done. Instead, they took a calendar process already underway (and open) before the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee and used it to break a long standing precedent (Iowa and New Hampshire up front), fulfill a priority for many in (and out of) the party in the process (uprooting Iowa and New Hampshire) and potentially streamline a nomination race in which Biden was already the overwhelming favorite. 

...just like other incumbents in the post-reform era. 


No comments: