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Weighing the Benefits and Costs of Changing the Order of Democratic Primaries

A report says, and it seems accurate, that President Biden is pushing for a change in the order of Democratic presidential primaries, presumably starting with 2024. He wants South Carolina to have the first primary, then perhaps New Hampshire and Nevada going second on the same day. Where Iowa would go in order, is not stated.

Well, I have very mixed feelings about this, and am more against it than for it. My thinking is as follows:

I do not like the Iowa caucus at all. I do not like caucuses. They are undemocratic. They discriminate against older people, who do not want to stand for hours, as is the case in some caucuses. They punish people who have jobs, and cannot take most of the day off for a caucus. As we convincingly saw in 2008 and 2016, the caucuses were flooded with young people, some of whom went to seminars to learn how to play the caucus game, and were able to win victories for Obama in the first of those campaigns, and Sanders in the second, that were not at all reflective of the Democratic electorate in that state.

So I would be happy to see the Iowa caucus not be the six-month focus of the candidates and the media. But I am not in favor of South Carolina being the first primary. Why? Because Democrats do not win South Carolina in the general election. I don’t even think we won it in the landslide of 1964. We certainly haven’t won it for decades, and we may never win it. So why put a state where Democrats never win, at the top of the primary order?

I would be very sure that the reason for it would be an effort to encourage Black voters that they are very important to the party. And they are, but they should not have more impact on choosing the nominee than non-Black voters. Being first is obviously very important in determining the nominee, though it obviously is not dispositive. We know what an outsized role all-White New Hampshire has had, and that is not ideal, either.

I will note that New Hampshire is a crucial state for Democrats getting to 270 electoral votes, and has been very close in general elections. It is a state that we cannot afford to lose. All the people coming into the state for the primary, including media, has been an economic boon for New Hampshire. Take that away, and there will be blowback in the vote. We are not going to win South Carolina; putting it first is a symbolic gesture, not a strategical one. And we need less symbols, and more strategy, in trying to win elections.

How can we forget the 2008 primaries? Obama was able to win the Iowa caucus, helped by some tricky politics from Bill Richardson, who promised to stay neutral, but then told all of his delegates in the early voting to move to Obama. Then the media went wild over Obama’s caucus win, and they were almost literally salivating over what they hoped would be Hillary’s loss in New Hampshire, and the end of her campaign, just like that. with only two small states deciding for 100 million would-be Democratic primary voters

But Hillary won New Hampshire, which caused Chris Matthews to say that she was a witch. Then came South Carolina. I don’t recall how South Carolina, a deep Red state in the deep Red South, became third in line. South Carolina has the highest percentage of Black voters in Democratic primaries, of any state. And not coincidentally, the spectre of claims of racism showed up. Bill Clinton made a comment to the effect that it was a “fairy tale” to believe that Obama had been against the Iraq War from an early stage. And somehow that got turned into him saying that Obama was not a credible candidate; so it was a racist attack, which was not only a ludicrous charge, but racist in itself.

And then James Clyburn stepped up and made a statement about how he was very troubled by Clinton’s comment. That was a set-up, the whole thing was strategical on the part of the Obama campaign. This led to the obscene comment by Clinton-hater Keith Olbermann, that “The Clintons are running a campaign right out of the David Duke playbook.”

The end result of all of this was that Obama won a big victory in the South Carolina primary, and then went on to win every Deep Southern primary, with large delegate margins, as he pulled in 95% of the Black vote. Hilary won virtually every other state primary, and all the major states except Obama’s home state of Illinois, but she could not make up enough delegates to overcome the caucus states and the Black vote in the South. Or maybe she did, but the DNC managed to halve her Florida delegates, and then take some of her delegates away in Michigan, where Obama had taken his name off the ballot in a ploy between him and Donna Brazile, who ostensibly “punished” those two states for moving their primaries up, and upsetting the order which she wanted them to be in.

Those are very bad memories, and I will always believe that the nomination was literally stolen from Hillary. In 2016 , this primary order ended up helping Hillary against Sanders. In 2020, the Black vote in the South saved Biden’s efforts to be nominated. That was a good thing; Sanders would have been destroyed in a national election against Trump. But again, the South has been given a disproportionate effect on the Democratic nomination, particularly considering that most of those states never go to the Democrats in a national election.

Biden apparently wants to show his gratitude to South Carolina, by making their primary first. But how would that skew the nominating process? Granted, any order would skew the process. I would be in favor of three or four primary election days, “Super Tuesdays,’ where the media could not focus on any one state as overly important. But we don’t have that.

I think that making South Carolina’s primary first each four years, will make that state disproportionately important in determining who the nominee is. It could work the other way; that primary could be discounted by pundits, but that would create a schism between the Black and non-Black primary vote. And relegating New Hampshire to almost meaningless status, could cost Democrats that state and the presidency. That is an awfully high price to pay for gratitude and symbolism.

Just ask yourself, “Why, of all the possible states, would South Carolina be chosen to be the first Democratic primary state?” Why not Michigan, or California, or Pennsylvania? And the answer would be telling. And it might pose a great risk to Democrats’ ability to win a Presidential election.

Let’s skip to 2028; and of course we don’t know who will win in 2024 in what we can assume will be a race between Biden and DeSantis. Now, I am not the biggest Gavin Newsom fan, but he is growing in ability and stature. I like Gretchen Whitmer. But how would either of them do in a South Carolina ‘first in the nation” primary? Would, say, Wes Moore win that, and be vaulted to the top of the leader board? And if one of the White candidates beat him out near the end, would that infuriate some Black voters?

As I typed that sentence, it occurred to me that this might well have happened in 2008, had Hillary won the nomination. There is likely a price that is going to be paid for all of this at some point.

Watching the news about this story, I saw Basil Smikle, a highly respected Democratic consultant from New York, who is Black. He said that he liked the idea of South Carolina being the first primary. But he also said, with regard to the Georgia Senate runoff, that he was concerned, because Black voters had not turned out as hoped in other key states in the midterms.

Just a variety of things to consider. They may come under the heading of strategy, but politics must significantly be about strategy, not just wafting noble sentiments into the air, and feeling satisfied with that.