PHILADELPHIA -- The Democratic Party on Saturday approved reordering its 2024 presidential primary, replacing Iowa with South Carolina in the leadoff spot as part of a major shake-up meant to empower Black and other minority voters critical to its base of support.
Although more changes are possible later this year, the formal endorsement by the Democratic National Committee during its meeting in Philadelphia is an acknowledgement that the start of the 2024 primary will look very different from the one in 2020. Hundreds of party stalwarts climbed to their feet and cheered after the easy passage by voice vote.
States with early contests play a major role in determining the nominee because White House hopefuls struggling to raise money or gain political traction often drop out before visiting states outside the first five. Media attention and policy debates concentrate in those areas, too.
The new plan was championed by President Joe Biden, who is expected to formally announce his reelection campaign in the coming months. The reconfiguring would have South Carolina hold its primary on Feb. 3, followed three days later by New Hampshire and Nevada, which is swapping the caucus it used to hold in favor of a primary.
Georgia would vote fourth on Feb. 13, followed by Michigan on Feb. 27, with much of the rest of the nation set to vote on Super Tuesday in early March.
“The Democratic Party looks like America and so does this proposal,” said DNC chair Jaime Harrison, a South Carolinian. The change “continues to make us stronger and elevates the backbone of our party,” he said.
Biden wrote the DNC rules committee in December, saying, “We must ensure that voters of color have a voice in choosing our nominee much earlier in the process and throughout the entire early window.” That committee approved the new lineup, setting up Saturday’s vote.
The move remakes the current calendar, which saw Iowa start with its caucus, followed by New Hampshire and then Nevada and South Carolina. The Republican Party has voted not to change its 2024 primary order, meaning the campaign has already began in Iowa.
“The DNC has decided to break a half-century precedent and cause chaos by altering their primary process, and ultimately abandoning millions of Americans in Iowa and New Hampshire,” Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel said in a statement Saturday.
Four of the first five new states under Democrats' new plan are battlegrounds, meaning the eventual party winner would be able to lay groundwork in important general election spots. That’s especially true for Michigan and Georgia, both of which voted for Republican Donald Trump in 2016 before flipping to Biden in 2020.
The exception is South Carolina, which hasn’t backed a Democrat in a presidential race since 1976, leading some to argue that the party shouldn’t be concentrating so many early primary resources there. But the state’s population is nearly 27% Black, and African American voters represent Democrats’ most consistent base of support. Iowa and New Hampshire are each more than 90% white.
The revamped calendar could be largely meaningless for 2024 because Biden is expected to run for a second term without a major primary challenge. Also, the DNC has already pledged to revisit the voting calendar before the 2028 presidential election.
Still, this year’s changes could establish precedent, just as a new lineup that moved Nevada and South Carolina into the first states to vote did when the DNC approved a new primary calendar before the 2008 presidential election.
“These things may be symbolic, but they’re realistic,” South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, assistant Democratic leader in the House and a close Biden ally, told The Associated Press.
The new order follows technical glitches that caused Iowa’s 2020 caucus to meltdown. It also gives Biden the chance to repay South Carolina, where he scored a decisive 2020 primary win that revived his presidential campaign after losses in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.
Democrats have worked on overhauling their primary lineup for months. On Saturday, nearly an hour of final debate turned raw at times.
Some Black members of the DNC said those arguing to abide by tradition could be seen as implying that states with larger African American populations were incapable of handling the responsibility of going early in the primary.
“If we're really a family, it means some of y'all got to shift to make room at the table for others,” said Leah Daughtry, a DNC rules committee member from New York.
Iowa Democratic Party chair Rita Hart argued that Republicans in her state were already accusing Democrats of “have turned their back on Iowa and on rural America." But Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell, to sustained applause, countered: "No one state should have a lock on going first.”
Despite the approval, the final slate is not yet set. South Carolina, Nevada and Michigan have met party requirements to join the party’s new top five. But in Georgia may not change its Democratic primary calendar date without the Republicans also doing so.
Iowa argued that continued uncertainty could cause other states to try and jump ahead of the new DNC calendar, as happened before the 2008 presidential race. The new rules include penalties for states trying to move up without permission, including possibly losing delegates to the party’s national convention.
New Hampshire has a state law mandating that it hold the nation’s first presidential primary, which Iowa circumvented since 1972 by holding a caucus. New Hampshire Democrats have joined with top state Republicans in pledging to go forward with the nation’s first presidential primary next year regardless of the DNC calendar.
No major challenger has yet emerged from his own party to run against Biden for president next year. Still, top New Hampshire Democrats have warned that another Democrat could run in an unsanctioned primary the state stages and, if Biden skips it in accordance with party rules, could win and embarrass the president — prolonging a primary process that wasn’t supposed to be competitive.
“Respecting our state law and lifting up diverse voices need not be mutually exclusive,” said Joanne Dowdell, a DNC rules committee member from New Hampshire.
Associated Press writer Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.