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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.

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24 Responses

  1. Gee, this isn’t hard to figure out. Clyburn is calling in his chips. Biden would never have become POTUS if not for Clyburn. Same is probably true for Obama.

    There’s lots of money to be made for South Carolina if it’s the first primary. Clyburn knows that.

    • It certainly seems like it. Or Biden is doing out of an abundance of gratitude.

      I know that demographics have changed. But I thought that the Clinton coalition, where we won Arkansas and Tennessee, and Iowa and Ohio, and I think North Carolina, was much more electorally effective than the Obama and Biden coalition, where we have ceded all of those states, maybe forever. We continue to have the narrowest of paths, because for whatever reasons, admirable and foolish alike, we have lost too many White voters in the Midwest and the South.

      • Well, a cynical person might point out that Biden’s “abundance of gratitude” doesn’t seem to extend to railroad workers.

  2. See RD’s last thread for usual Friday night links, since I can’t post links or pix in William’s threads.

  3. Also, if South Carolina holds the first primary in 2024, Biden (presuming he runs) is virtually guaranteed to win with Clyburn’s support. Any Democratic challenger (I have no idea who might decide to run) will go into the following primaries branded a loser right off the bat. It seems too rigged to me. I don’t care for it at all. Primaries are not coronations.

    I would like to see the caucuses eliminated entirely. If a new state is chosen to replace New Hampshire to hold the first primary, let it be Ohio, a large Midwestern state with a diverse population.

    • Primaries usually are coronations when you have a candidate who is a sitting president. I don’t see how in anyway( save for a huge scandal) that there will be any contested primary in 2024. Who is going to run against Biden? Mike Gravel?

    • There will be no more Presidential runs for Mike Gravel. He died of cancer last year.

      • Well I guess that is the point. I would have loved to have had Amy Klobuchar become the nominee. She has been an extremely effective senator and could win the rust belt. But we are straddled with Biden. Happy with his performance but let’s face it – half of this country went Jim Jones devotee on us so we had no other choice.

      • While I don’t think there’s a specific constitutional require that one be alive to run for President, I think being deceased is probably a bigger impediment than most challengers would face.

    • I can think of various scenarios, apart from a huge scandal, in which a Newsom type candidate would challenge Biden in the primaries, even though a Newsom type candidate has said he will not do so.

      If South Carolina becomes the first primary, it could deter a Newsom type candidate from running. Smart move by Biden if he can pull off this order of primary change. It will be complicated since states set their own primary dates and some are protected by state laws.

      • Biden’s South Carolina first strategy appears to be a gift to Clyburn and a shield against a challenger, especially a challenger from the left (although I don’t see a Newsom type candidate as coming from anywhere ‘left’ except the state of California).

  4. SC definitely gives advantage to Biden but he already has a huge advantage and will almost certainly be the nominee. Caucuses should be eliminated. No to Iowa going first. Ever again. Who wants to see candidates hamming it up at county fairs eating heaps of funnel cakes and corn dogs 🙄 and then having to sit through all the saccharin sentimentality of surly old farmers in John Deere hats given long news segments on how they are ‘real Americans’ and how candidates have to lick his boots and promise him 3 goats, 2 cows and partridge in a pear tree in order for them to earn his vote. The Iowa fiasco was over with in 2020.

    Why not shorten the primary season? I am all for candidates having equal opportunity but I question if it’s all ceremonial at this point. Even if you win the most votes they don’t allow you to become the nominee. Maybe I’m jaded but I say let everyone vote within a few weeks and get it over with.

    • That was a great description of the Iowa caucus process! That is what it seems like to me. And the state always votes Republican now, anyway, even though Republicans ruined the farmlands.

      On the plus side, Biden is also pushing to get rid of caucuses, though that is probably the part they will end up leaving in. On the negative side, he and other Democrats who either support it, or do not dare say anything against it, will be giving precedence to a state where Democrats are lucky to get 40% of the vote. The proposed order is South Carolina, then New Hampshire and Nevada on the same day, then Georgia and Michigan. Is the goal to have a Black presidential nominee every other cycle, as most of the other candidates have to drop out?

      If one likes Gavin Newsom, say, or Gretchen Whitmer, how does either of them manage to do well in those primaries?California has the largest population, and a lot of the donor money, and it gets ignored..Biden has done many good things as President, and has handled himself well. But this is not only a mistake, in my view, but very presumptuous. The Brazile coalition is not going to ever get Democrats a meaningful majority, but Donna,who was on Fox News the last time I read about her, does not care. And how many House and Senate and Governor seats and state legislatures were lost to Republicans under Obama and that coalition?

  5. From WaPo:

    “Biden said the new calendar would only apply to the 2024 cycle, and should be reconsidered after the next presidential election.”

    So when the DNC selects the nominee for 2028, they will tailor the primary calendar to guarantee that candidate will win. Sounds fair to me! Tell me again why I bother to vote in presidential elections.

    • Because the alternative is far, far, worse. And that is where we are, and what bothers me so much when the party which everyone should vote for, is so intent on showing how righteously virtuous they are, that they think that they are going to be rewarded by the voters for it. Can you imagine doing this, and then trying at some future point to change it, and take the primacy away from South Carolina? Never, unless they go to a national primary.

      • In today’s climate I agree with you William. But I don’t think 4 years of McCain over Obama would have caused all that much pain, and it might have prevented Trump. Of course Obama never should have gotten the nomination in the first place, but there is no way I could ever pull the lever for him after his duplicity.

        • jmac. you may well be right Of course, McCain might have won two terms, or Obama might have run for the nomination again in 2012, though I think Hillary would have gotten it, and beaten McCain. Obama’s victory, as thrilling as it was to so many, did come with a cost, as we can see years later, when we look at the electoral landscape.

      • It’s hard to see how we could have a national primary without a constitutional amendment, since election law (and the funding for holding elections) is a state matter. Colorado finally went back to holding a Presidential primary in the 2020 election cycle. The primary had been abolished by the (then Republican-dominated) legislature after the 1996 election, supposedly as a cost-saving measure (elections, including primaries, are paid for by the state while caucuses are paid for by the parties themselves). In fact, this was really a Republican effort to bankrupt the Libertarian Party in Colorado, which was mounting strong challenges to the Republicans in many right-leaning legislative districts in the late ’90s.

      • A long primary season only works on the premise of there being a fair fight, a process that works it’s way out in good faith. If the DNC wants people to rally behind a candidate early on then what is the point of the long process? Shorten the primary season and spare us all the heartache and frustration.

        • AGREE completely. The DNC appears to be owned by corporate interests, not that the rest of congress isn’t also, but the corporations have way too much power. Thank you John Roberts.

    • Yup horrible. Confirms my thoughts about it being purely ceremonial. This is the Obama model. Voters do not have sovereignty.

  6. Why not eliminate the farce of primaries altogether? Have the DNC pick the nominee and tell us we must vote for that person in the general election. Isn’t that what we already do?

    “I finally got my orders / I’ll be marching through the morning / Marching through the night”

  7. Thank g-d for Wordle. It’s a nice little escape. I was Magnificent today.

    • Agree, I read a few blogs/newspapers, then go to Wordle, Dordle, Octordle, and Wordshake to clear my brain.

      I was a fairly typical (for me) Great today.

      I will just bid you adieu ;-o).

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