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Democrats are on the verge of changing their primary calendar in ways that could have some profound effects on the way their presidential nominating process works ― and, ultimately, the kinds of nominees the party produces.
The proposed changes come from President Joe Biden, although they have the support of a large chorus of party leaders, activists and officials — all of whom have grown frustrated with the outsized influence of Iowa and New Hampshire, which have traditionally gone first and second.
Under the plan, South Carolina would go first, replacing Iowa. New Hampshire would still have its primary one week later, but it would share its day with Nevada. Two larger states, Georgia and then Michigan, would be next.
The changes, which HuffPost’s Kevin Robillard detailed here and which the DNC’s rule-making committee OK’d on Friday, are not yet final. They must still get approval from the full DNC at its February meeting.
Even then, carrying out this plan would depend on acquiescence from the states, which control when they hold their nominating contests. That shouldn’t be a problem in Michigan, which has a Democratic governor and (as of January) a Democratic legislature. In other states, it would require getting buy-in from some Republican officials.
A primary goal of these changes is to make sure voters in the early contests are more representative of the Democratic Party ― and the U.S. population ― as a whole. Roughly 83% of Iowa residents are white; in New Hampshire, that number is nearly 88%.
In South Carolina, by contrast, just 63% of the population is white. That’s a lot closer to the national average, which is around 58%. The populations of Nevada, Michigan and Georgia are also more diverse than either Iowa’s or New Hampshire’s.
“New Hampshire and Iowa don’t reflect the diversity of this country,” Debbie Dingell, the Michigan House Democrat who has long called for her state to have an earlier role, told HuffPost. “The issues that you have to talk about to win in Michigan are the same issues that you have to talk about to win the general election.”
“The notion that you’re gonna win this by going into rural areas or small towns … I just don’t think politics is ever going to work that way again.”
Pushing Iowa back in the schedule and diminishing New Hampshire’s role may disappoint people with romantic notions of those contests and the role retail politicking played in them. And that romance has at least some basis in reality.
To win in Iowa and New Hampshire, a candidate really did have to prove themselves in small, one-on-one settings that put their ideas, communication skills and leadership abilities under close scrutiny. Over the years, either Iowa or New Hampshire proved critical in elevating some eventual winners who were skilled at this sort of campaigning, whether it was Iowans embracing Jimmy Carter in 1976 or New Hampshire voters making Bill Clinton the “comeback kid” in 1992.
But sometimes, candidates won in Iowa and New Hampshire simply because they had good television advertisements or gaffe-prone opponents or were from neighboring states. And thanks to the changing nature of campaigns in the information age, it’s not even clear that retail politics were going to remain as central in Iowa and New Hampshire, regardless of when in the cycle they held their contests.
“With everything being all over the internet, all the time, the notion that you’re gonna win this by going into rural areas or small towns and winning that way, by winning in small settings, I just don’t think politics is ever going to work that way again,” Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg told HuffPost.
Rosenberg, who is a president of the New Democrat Network think tank and the New Policy Institute, is especially familiar with the primary calendar and efforts to change it because he was a driving force behind the most recent change: an agreement, in advance of the 2008 election, to move both Nevada and South Carolina up in the process, right behind Iowa and New Hampshire.
The goal of that change, as with this new one, was to expose presidential candidates to a more representative electorate — via Nevada, with its relatively large Hispanic population, and South Carolina, with its large proportion of Black voters. The change likely had a big effect.
Barack Obama’s win in South Carolina allowed him to hold off Hillary Clinton, who had just won in New Hampshire. If a different state had come next, Obama might not have won ― and might never have gotten the nomination.
So how could this new schedule change the process? There’s no way to be sure, obviously. But here are three possibilities, based on conversations with some veteran officials and operatives ― and one very important restaurateur.
1. A more diverse — but not necessarily more progressive — electorate. Iowa used to be a swing state. Now it clearly trends more Republican, making it tempting to think that replacing it with other, less conservative states would make for a more progressive electorate.
But that’s not necessarily the case. While Iowa as a whole may be among the more conservative states, the sub-population that participated in its nominating process has generally been pretty liberal. Bernie Sanders finished a very close second in 2020, and Elizabeth Warren, who came in third, still finished well ahead of Biden.
A big reason for that is that Iowa’s contest is a caucus, not a primary. It requires a serious investment of time and at least some attention to the rules of the process. The people most likely to show up and participate are those who are most engaged with politics already, and in Democratic politics, those people tend to embrace more progressive positions.
“Iowa is indeed Republican-trending,” Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels told HuffPost, “but its Democratic Party activists have been pretty liberal.”
Quite apart from any ideological effects, moving away from caucuses could simply expand the universe of people who get involved in choosing their party’s nominees.
“We want to create a system that incentivizes maximum participation,” Rosenberg said. “To ask someone to go sit for three hours, on a Tuesday night, on a cold night in the winter, does not maximize participation.”
2. More investment in swing states.
Campaigns inevitably give more attention to states that go early in the process. They spend more time and money enlisting volunteers, compiling voter lists and making connections with local constituencies ― in ways that can pay off in the general election.
If the calendar didn’t change, Democrats would be continuing to make that kind of investment into Iowa and New Hampshire ― two states that don’t have many electoral votes and that, in the case of Iowa, are pretty difficult for Democrats to win.
With the new schedule, assuming it goes through, much of the investment will go to Georgia, Nevada and Michigan. Those three states have more electoral votes and are very much up for grabs.
“The early states get massive investment,” Dan Pfeiffer, who was part of Obama’s 2008 campaign and then his administration, told HuffPost. “And when that investment happens in states that are not competitive in the general, the value of that investment goes away the day after the contest.”
3. New campaign rituals. One reason that romantics are mourning the end of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status is that it has its own rituals, among them the treks candidates make to the Iowa State Fair where, traditionally, they eat corn dogs.
But the new states hoping to go early have their own gastronomic traditions, and one of them, Michigan, even has an alternative to the corn dog. It’s called the Coney dog.
A Coney dog is a hot dog topped with beanless chili, onions and mustard. (The hot dog is always grilled, the buns always steamed.) Coney dogs trace their history back to Greek immigrants who settled in Michigan in the early 20th century, who ― as the story goes ― first got exposure to hot dogs while passing through New York City, where they came to associate them with Coney Island.
Two of the three establishments that first served Coney dogs are in Detroit and one, American Coney Island, remains a family business owned and run by Grace Keros, granddaughter of one of those Greek immigrants. Along with its neighbor and rival Lafayette Coney Island, American Coney Island is likely to become a regular stop on campaign swings through Michigan ― a prospect that leaves Keros with mixed feelings so soon after the midterm elections, when campaign ads saturated the airwaves.
“We just got done with the election; can everybody just take a break for a minute?” she told HuffPost.
But Keros said she also recognized the importance of food rituals in campaigning and offered some advice for future candidates who might come through, lest they embarrass themselves in front of the voters: “Pick it up with your hand, don’t put ketchup on it and ― for God’s sake ― don’t use a knife and fork.”