“There’s no reason in the world that those states should go forward so early, because they’re not representative of what 90 percent of the country’s all about,” said former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who remains influential in party politics. “America looks different than it did 50 years ago, when these traditions were put in place, and the Democratic electorate looks really different.”
He added, “It’s no longer palatable, as far as I’m concerned, for those states to take precedence over states like South Carolina and Nevada.”
The legislation marked the first real offensive in what is likely to be a drawn-out war over the outline of the 2024 presidential nominating process. In Iowa, the state’s Democratic Party chair, state Rep. Ross Wilburn, said he is “prepared to do whatever it takes to keep Iowa first in the nation.” And in New Hampshire, Bill Gardner, the longtime secretary of state, said neither the Democratic National Committee nor the Republican National Committee will dictate to his state when it can vote.
“The status of the primary was not given to New Hampshire by the parties,” Gardner said, referring to the state law that requires New Hampshire to hold its primary at least seven days before any “similar election” in another state. “We have a law, and we’ll comply with our law.”
Iowa has a similar law on its books, stating that it must hold its caucuses at least eight days before any other nominating contest.
Nevada’s move this week intensified conversations among top Iowa and New Hampshire operatives and activists eager to prepare their defense, and privately, several Iowa Democrats acknowledged that their status was in serious jeopardy. But changing the presidential nominating calendar — bound up by state laws, party committee rules and an interest in syncing it up with Republicans — isn’t an easy or straightforward process. And key players, like the White House and DNC Chair Jaime Harrison, haven’t weighed in on it yet.
“There have been attempts to replace Iowa from both sides, and we’ve been able to stay together [with Iowa Republicans] and work through these challenges,” said Jeff Link, an Iowa-based Demcoratic consultant. “We’re going to have to do it again because there’s a very real threat.”
This time, though, the fallout may be fatal. Tom Perez, the former DNC chair, has blasted the tradition of Iowa and New Hampshire going first. In Nevada, Reid has been calling since last year for his state to both do away with its caucus system — which would appease national Democrats — and go first in the nominating process. The bill introduced this week, in addition to switching the state’s caucus to a primary, would set the date for the second-to-last Tuesday in January.
Nevada’s Democratic Assembly Speaker, Jason Frierson, suggested the bill was a starting point for a “national conversation about what makes sense.”
“It would not be ideal to just have a back-and-forth and just have a leapfrog exercise,” he said, “so the hope is that we can coordinate with the national party as well as our states, and work something out.” Frierson said he “certainly [is] not trying to start some dispute between states,” adding that “this is the beginning of the conversation.”
But Frierson, like many other Democrats outside of Iowa and New Hampshire, suggested that instead of presidential candidates focusing for a year or more on Iowa and New Hampshire — two heavily white states — it would “behoove” them “to be speaking to a diverse population” more reflective of the electorate at large.
Nevada, in addition to fitting that bill with its sizable Hispanic population, also shares an advantage that Iowa and New Hampshire have — being small enough in population that a candidate without massive resources can compete there. So, too, does South Carolina, the fourth state in the “early carve-out” states before Super Tuesday.
It’s unclear when the Democratic National Committee will formally take up the calendar issue. David Bergstein, a DNC spokesperson, said in an email that “the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee will continue to evaluate all areas of our nominating process and make recommendations for any changes.” No meeting has been set, though, and Wilburn said he has been told the Rules and Bylaws Committee will likely meet in August.
Wilburn, who was recently elected as the state party’s first Black chair, expressed confidence in Iowa’s standing. Every four years, he said, “the threats, the jockeying for position occurs when the calendar is set. … I’m confident we can make our case.”
Like other Iowa loyalists, Wilburn points to the face-to-face campaigning that candidates can do with a spectrum of constituencies in his small state, and to the geographic and demographic diversity achieved by the first four nominating states together.
President Joe Biden — who, as the head of the party, will have enormous influence over the 2024 calendar — has not yet signaled his preference. Earlier this month, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said it was “too soon” to talk about the lineup of states for the next election.
Psaki, while noting that “Nevada is a little warmer,” said they are “all great states” and that the White House is “not focused on — on the next political campaign here quite yet.”
Notably, though, Biden’s path to the presidential nomination didn’t include Iowa or New Hampshire, where he landed in fourth and fifth place, respectively. Instead, “the only place I’d guess that’s absolutely safe in its early-status position is South Carolina,” said one national Democratic operative, highlighting Rep. Jim Clyburn as a key champion for the state that delivered Biden to the White House.
But in Iowa and New Hampshire, the shadowboxing has already begun. In Iowa, the release of a report in December that apportioned blame for the state’s chaotic caucus at least partly on meddling from the DNC was widely viewed as an effort to defend itself from the coming onslaught. And in New Hampshire, the Nevada legislation was taken as an affront.
“It looks like they’ve thrown down the gauntlet,” Bill Shaheen, the state’s Democratic national committeeman, told WMUR in New Hampshire this week. “It’s on. … Let’s get it on.”
“The reaction I saw after Nevada was — we need to be ready for the fight, and we will be,” said Norm Sterzenbach, an Iowa-based Democratic consultant. “Their move forced a conversation on the national level [and] it also kicks people in Iowa into gear about what our system could look like under different scenarios.”
But Doug Herman, an Iowa native who was a lead mail strategist for Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, said he “can’t imagine that they get the opportunity to present a caucus in 2024.”
Caucuses, he said, “served their time” but are “anachronistic and exclusionary in terms of voting … antithetical to everything the Democratic Party is trying to do.”
Several Iowa Democrats discussed a range of potential solutions to maintain their status: grouping several early states on a single day; hosting an unsanctioned caucus or a party-run primary; and removing the state’s viability threshold in the caucuses, turning it into a “firehouse” caucus. But all those potential solutions run headlong into logistical, legal and legislative challenges, should any of them be attempted.
As for the calendar, Herman said, “There’s going to have to be a compromise, and my guess is that a regional grouping is what becomes the play.” That could mean four states from four different regions holding primaries in successive weeks, potentially beginning with the four states that kick off the process now — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
Iowa and New Hampshire could also choose to buck the party. States have done that before, as Florida and Michigan did with early primaries in 2008 in defiance of party rules. Asked whether Iowa could hold an unsanctioned caucus — daring candidates not to campaign there — Dave Nagle, the former congressmember and Iowa state Democratic Party chair, said, “Sure.”
For every state that has tried to move ahead of Iowa or New Hampshire, he said, “it generally does not have a happy ending. … The one thing they’re ignoring, and it shows their inexperience out there [in Nevada], the one thing is Bill Gardner in New Hampshire. Bill will go to July of 2021 if he has to to keep the first primary.”
Nagle, while defending Iowa’s place as a voice for rural voters and voters in the Midwest, suggested that at a minimum, the Nevada legislation was straining relationships between states. For years, he said, the four early nominating states had resolved to “stand together, not get in a contest against each other.” The legislation, he said, “has a tendency to break down the alliance.”
Some Iowa activists argue that Democrats should focus more on regaining ground in congressional and statewide races, after sustaining serious electoral losses in 2020, rather than trying to put on a complicated and expensive presidential contest. Others hope that the party eliminates caucuses altogether — arguing that they limit peoples’ access to vote — even if it means risking their first-in-the-nation status.
“The big question for Iowa Democrats, being talked about in sotto voce, is, does the DNC ban caucuses altogether?” said John Deeth, a Johnson County, Iowa, Democratic activist who supports eliminating the caucuses and replacing them with a primary. “If they do that, Republicans, however, hold on to a trifecta of the legislature and the governor’s office [in Iowa], and they are not interested in passing a primary bill for Democrats … and that leaves us with only bad options.”
Another looming challenge comes in timing the presidential calendar with Republicans, or “have we reached the point where they break apart and do things differently?” said Craig Robinson, an Iowa GOP consultant and former state party official. “I think that may be more likely now.”
Robinson noted that Republicans, unlike Democrats, already have eyes on 2024 and “candidates want to know where the game is going to be played, so that’s to Iowa and New Hampshire’s advantage.”
Iowa Republican Party Chair Jeff Kaufmann said that he was confident that his state, alongside Iowa Democrats, would maintain its status, “but I never take anything for granted,” he added. “Am I going to sleep until it’s official? Nope.”