Reid and Clyburn both make the case for their states voting first. But Clyburn said he wouldn’t lobby for it and would leave the decision to newly installed party chairman Jaime Harrison and the DNC.
Reid said he and Clyburn had spoken several times about the timing and possibility of both states going at the same time. But, the former Senate Leader said, he would be comfortable with South Carolina taking the lead, if necessary.
“I’m not going to arm wrestle Jim Clyburn,” Reid said.
The outline of the 2024 presidential nominating process is coming under scrutiny in part because of Iowa’s botched 2020 caucuses, which failed to deliver a clear winner at a time when the Democratic Party’s increasing diversity focused attention on the state’s predominantly white electorate. Elevating South Carolina’s rolewould pay homage to a changing electoral map, where Southern voters — including in Georgia — stepped up to support Biden in the general election.
Similar political and demographic considerations are at play in Nevada, where Reid has advocated for ending caucuses altogether and the state legislature is considering a proposal to do so.
Within the DNC, Democrats have talked about various approaches, including multiple states going first on the same day — such as Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina all voting together on a single date. Regional primaries are another option where, for instance, Iowa and another Midwestern state could vote at the same time.
“Many of us believe that the first four could be consolidated, and still provide a small-state focus,” said Larry Cohen, a longtime DNC member who was vice chair of the party’s post-2016 Unity Reform Commission. He also called for “further calendar consolidation so that states like New York and New Jersey actually mean something.”
But there’s already pushback to the idea of challenging the traditional order. New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley said adding multiple states at once would mean a TV-driven campaign, supplanting the intimacy that comes when an individual state is the sole focus of all the campaigns.
“People have been kicking around that flawed concept for decades,” Buckley said. “Only the self funders or celebrity candidates would be able to compete. Without question, that plan would have prevented JFK, Carter, Clinton, Obama and Biden from ever being nominated. It would make having hundreds of millions for slick TV ads more important than one-on-one conversations with people. That idea should say in the trash can of discarded ideas.”
When told Buckley referred to the concept of consolidating early state contests as flawed, Reid shot back, “I think he’s flawed to think that’s a bad idea,” and dismissed the idea of candidates not visiting the states as “baloney.”
Both Reid and Clyburn contend that Biden himself is the case in point for rethinking the current Iowa-followed-by-New-Hampshire set-up: The president came in fourth and fifth respectively in those states before landing second in Nevada and carrying South Carolina.
“Those states demographically do not represent the Democratic voting bloc. They should not have an outsize influence,” Clyburn said. While Barack Obama had won Iowa in 2008, he lost New Hampshire to Hillary Clinton, Clyburn noted.
“South Carolina rescued Obama. If Obama had not won South Carolina, he would never have gotten the nomination. It’s that simple.”
“South Carolina is a state that gives Democratic candidates the best chance for developing a national primary,” he said.
According to some Democrats, the task of pushing for South Carolina to go first — unaccompanied by any other states — could be politically sensitive for Harrison due to his home state ties: He previously served as chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party and ran for the Senate there in 2020. For that reason, some expect him to avoid that path.
“I think he’ll be very cautious about South Carolina because almost histotal life experience since law school was there,” said one DNC member. “He’s not a heavy-handed person at all.”
Pennsylvania is another state that might see its status change. There has been talk of Pennsylvania, Biden’s birthplace and a critical battleground, voting earlier in the calendar along with similar Rust Belt states.
Sharif Street, vice chair of Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party, said that after the primary last year he spoke with other state parties about creating a “Rust Belt primary” in which multiple Midwestern states would vote during the second week of March. He said DNC leadership at the time did not oppose the idea.
“I expect it will come back,” he said of the proposal. “It would allow candidates in the primary to focus on messaging on issues that are important to people in Pennsylvania and people in areas like Pennsylvania. Our issues can be a little different than issues in other regions of the country.”
DNC members said they are also talking about instituting changes to the caucus process such as making it easier for people to absentee vote and streamlining the allocation of delegates — including perhaps ending Iowa’s “state delegate equivalents” and utilizing a headcount instead.
Attempting to eliminate caucuses altogether — not just in Iowa, but across the country — is also on the table, said one DNC member. The committee could do this by refusing to count delegates from states that use them, the person said.
“The general chatter consensus seems to be that caucuses should go, and everyone should have a primary election,” they added. “And that one state can’t be first-in-the-nation anymore.”
But a DNC official said that not all states provide funding for government-run primaries, and that there must be a way for such states to participate in the nominating process.
As for state delegate equivalents, the official said the party gives flexibility to states to determine how they allocate delegates, and it is unlikely it would write a rule on such a specific circumstance.
Critics of caucuses argue that they make it harder for disabled and older people, as well as those who work on weekends or at night, to vote. After the 2016 presidential election, the DNC advised states to use primaries “where possible.” Their reputation has only fallen further since the Iowa debacle last year.
Iowa is not without its defenders, though.
“There still is a lot of political capital around Iowa and New Hampshire that I think some people may underestimate inside the party,” said another DNC member. “Those two states have a long history, especially New Hampshire with Chair Buckley, and longstanding relationships” with those in the DNC.
Jim Zogby, a longtime member of the DNC, said, “I have always been a fan of the Iowa caucuses. I remain a fan of the Iowa caucuses.”
He called the idea of consolidating several states for the first voting day a “horrible” idea: “If you do Super Tuesday the first day, then the guy with the biggest money wins.”
Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn said in a statement that he is “committed” to advocating to party leaders why the state should go first.
“Not only that, but the opportunity Iowa has created for presidents, leaders in our party, campaign staff, and volunteers to connect with voters and have critical debates about the future of our country,” he said. “We’re very early in this process but, as we do every four years, we’re willing to talk with folks about the importance of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation role and make improvements to our system to make it stronger and more accessible.”