Democrats fight for first primary state in 2024

With united Democratic control of state government, Gretchen Whitmers Michigan is poised to contend for an early spot on the calendar.
Photo: Carlos Osorio/AP/Shutterstock

As Donald Trump’s announcement in 2024 signaled, we are now officially in the run-up to the next presidential election. But a huge piece of basic voting infrastructure is missing, at least for the Democrats: The order of states holding presidential primaries is very up in the air.

Earlier this year, the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, which sets guidelines for the nomination process and administers sticks and carrots to get states to comply, announced it would allow five “early states” to hold nomination contests before Jan. 2024. The four states allowed to cross that golden wire line from 2008 to 2020 — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina — would have to reapply for privileged status, along with everyone else. No fewer than 20 state Democratic parties have expressed an interest in contending for those five spots. However, because some of the changed calendar positions would require action by the state government, which normally controls and funds the primaries, the DNC delayed a final selection until after the midterm elections it was clear who decided where.

Now, Michigan Democrats, who flipped both houses of legislature and retained the governorship this month, are heating up the 2024 calendar discussion with a clear bid for an early seat, as NBC News reports:

Michigan Democrats — led by Rep. Debbie Dingell — feel well-positioned to join the coveted early state ranks after huge gains in the Nov. 8 election. As Iowa faces a possible eviction from the early states, many expect Democrats to raise a Midwestern state.

Democrats now have full control of the Lansing statehouse, which would allow them to slightly change state laws to support a new date for the 2024 primary.

The criteria previously announced by the DNC for early states, as reported by CBS News, were diversity (racial, ethnic, geographic, and economic diversity, and union representation), competitiveness in general elections, and practicability (whether states will start their contest in the early window when they can conduct a “fair, transparent and inclusive nomination process” and the logistical requirements and costs of campaigning in that state). It was also an unspoken but understood criterion that the five early states would represent different regions. So Michigan may be competing with Minnesota for a spot in the early state, where Democrats meanwhile also nailed a trifecta.

Iowa’s traditional first-in-the-nation caucus looked doomed all along. The state is notoriously undiverse and is now solidly Republican in a general election. The “feasibility” of an event in Iowa was also called into question by the 2020 fiasco, which saw no results from the Iowa caucus announced by the next day.

New Hampshire, despite its non-heterogeneous population, will be harder to oust to maintain the first elementary school position because of a state law authorizing the Secretary of State to push back the date of the first elementary school. But Nevada Democrats are making a sustained effort to stay ahead of New Hampshire by moving to an elementary school and aggressively touting its superior diversity and apparent competitiveness. However, it’s unclear whether Republican Joe Lombardo’s gubernatorial win in Nevada will disrupt efforts to approve a new state primary.

This points to one of two variables complicating the process of selecting the first states: On the whole, Republicans are comfortable with the existing state order. There’s no pressure within the GOP to drop Iowa or oust New Hampshire or do anything out of the ordinary. In states where Republican cooperation is needed to get things moving or to provide the necessary resources, Democrats must convince their partisan enemies to do the same. And if the proposed new primary date in a particular state violates the RNC’s existing calendar rules, that state’s Republicans could be penalized and lose delegates to their own congress. The prospect of a serious fight for the GOP presidential nomination adds another set of calculations.

It’s a Rubik’s Cube, and that’s largely why the existing calendar for both parties has endured for so long, aside from the fact that both parties in Iowa and New Hampshire have long worked together to defend their calendar privileges like mad badgers .

The other big variable Democrats face is the broader context: What choices do Democrats face in 2024? At this point, we don’t know for sure if President Biden will run for a second term, and we don’t know if he will face much competition if he does. If Biden has to fight for the renomination, his performance in certain states in 2020 may have some bearing on a loyal DNC deciding where to run in 2024. That could really doom Iowa if it isn’t already doomed given Biden’s fourth-place finish there in 2020. And Biden is done fifth in New Hampshire. The DNC probably wouldn’t want to give calendar privileges to a potential rival’s home state.

But decisions must be made, and the Rules and Bylaws Committee will make them when it meets December 1-3 in Washington, DC. A lot of fur can fly.

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