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Democrats vote to upend presidential primary calendar for 2024 but challenges persist

People cheer during the Democratic National Committee 2023 Winter meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on February 3, 2023.
ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS
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AFP via Getty Images
People cheer during the Democratic National Committee 2023 Winter meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on February 3, 2023.

Members of the Democratic National Committee overwhelmingly voted to reshuffle the party's presidential primary calendar, booting the Iowa caucuses from the early slate of states and boosting primaries in South Carolina, Nevada, Georgia and Michigan.

The vote Saturday, which punctuated a three-day gathering in Philadelphia, ratifies a proposal the Rules and Bylaws Committee (RBC) made in December and officially cements what many Democrats have long called for: the elevation of states that are more reflective of the Democratic party's diversity.

"Folks, the Democratic party looks like America and so does this proposal," DNC Chair Jaime Harrison said ahead of the vote.

The RBC made its recommendation after conducting a lengthy process in which states interested in one of the coveted early window spots pitched the committee on areas of diversity, voter access, and competitiveness in a general election.

Under the adopted proposal, which President Biden himself advocated for in a letter to the RBC in December, the 2024 presidential calendar will have South Carolina in the plum first position on Feb. 3, followed by New Hampshire and Nevada jointly sharing the no. 2 slot on Feb. 6, then Georgia on Feb. 13 and Michigan on Feb. 27.

It's a calendar that in many ways rewards states that helped propel Biden to the White House in 2020, including South Carolina, which drastically shifted Biden's presidential fortunes.

"It's a big day for the state of South Carolina, and I would say not just South Carolina, but our region," said Trav Robertson, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. "It is a clear indication that the DNC is no longer going to take the South for granted."

But the sweeping calendar changes are not without hurdles - and they come in the form of outstanding questions about whether New Hampshire and Georgia can meet the demands imposed on them by the national party.

New Hampshire Democrats argue they're in a 'no-win position'

Members of the Iowa and New Hampshire Democratic delegations energetically voiced opposition to the new calendar Saturday before the official vote.

"I vigorously support our president and I support the principles that guided the calendar," said Rita Hart, chair of the Iowa Democratic party. "But I cannot support a proposal that further erodes Democratic party support in my state and the entire middle part of the country."

Joanne Dowdell, a member of the RBC from New Hampshire, said it "broke my heart to vote against [Biden's] proposed calendar."

"I agree with my colleagues that it is essential that we lift up diverse voices in our presidential election process," she said. "When some members say that we are frustrated or that we are attacking them by standing up for New Hampshire, it is frustrating. It is frustrating the DNC is set to punish us despite the fact we don't have the ability to unilaterally change state law."

New Hampshire Democrats, who for generations have viewed the first primary in the nation as their political birthright, insist following the DNC's marching orders on the primary schedule isn't up to them. They point to a state law that gives the secretary of state, currently a Republican, the power to move the date of the primary to protect its first-in-the-nation status.

"This is not about New Hampshire's history or our pride," Dowdell said. "This is about state law."

The DNC is not only requiring that states in the early window hold the primary on the dates specified by the national party but also implement expanded voter access - something New Hampshire Democrats say is a political impossibility.

"We have a Republican trifecta on the state level with Republicans controlling the governorship, the House, and the Senate, and they have all said very clearly and colorfully that these provisions are non-starters and will not be done," longtime New Hampshire Democratic party chair Ray Buckley told reporters Friday.

"We're in an impossible, no-win position," he said. "We know that New Hampshire will still hold the first-in-the-nation primary, whether or not the DNC approves of it."

But if that happens - which Buckley stressed is not a hypothetical but an eventuality - DNC rules will be triggered and consequences will be meted out.

"It wouldn't be the first time states have tried to jump the line," RBC member Mo Elleithee told NPR. "I hope it doesn't come to that. But I think the DNC is probably better prepared to enforce this calendar than it ever has been."

In December, the DNC detailed the enforcement actions it is prepared to take. Should a state - like New Hampshire - not meet the requirements and hold its primary early anyway, the state automatically loses half its delegates.

Presidential candidates would also be precluded from campaigning — which includes putting their name on the ballot — in any state that goes outside the DNC-approved window.

"The DNC can choose to do whatever they wish to do," Buckley said. "But it seems odd that we would be punished for doing something that is completely out of our control."

Both New Hampshire and Georgia have received extensions on meeting the DNC's requirements via a waiver process until early summer.

When asked what would practically change between now and then, Buckley said the extension "was offered to us and we took that as an olive branch that there will be an option to have further conversation and try to make this work."

The public campaign waged by New Hampshire Democrats has touched a nerve among many of the party faithful

Dowdell and Buckley's comments come amid exasperation from some DNC members who are sympathetic to New Hampshire's political uphill battle but frustrated by the public nature of their complaints.

The state's Democratic U.S. senators recently skipped a White House congressional gala in protest and have vowed the primary will continue as usual. A group of Democrats, including former Gov. John Lynch, warned Biden the new calendar could affect the president's reelection campaign. Former Democratic New Hampshire House Speaker Steve Shurtleff went as far as to say he would look for another candidate to support if the state lost its first place spot.

"We get it - they have a Republican legislature, they've got a Republican governor," Elleithee said. "I look forward to seeing them put the same level of energy into fighting that as they are into fighting us."

President Biden and Vice President Harris addressed the Democratic National Committee Friday evening in Philadelphia. Biden has encouraged the DNC to approve a new primary calendar for 2024 that elevates states with more diverse electorates.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden and Vice President Harris addressed the Democratic National Committee Friday evening in Philadelphia. Biden has encouraged the DNC to approve a new primary calendar for 2024 that elevates states with more diverse electorates.

Georgia Democrats hope to convince Republicans to move up their primary

Elleithee said Georgia, which has been critical in delivering the U.S. Senate for Democrats in the past two election cycles, made "one of the most compelling pitches of all the states that came in."

"They sort of hit all the criteria and really fit into the framework that we set as to the values and the factors that we cared about," he said. "They came in hot, they came in strong, and they were impressive."

But like New Hampshire, Georgia faces significant challenges in meeting the DNC's requirements, as Republicans control the state government there as well.

The Republican National Committee has retained its lineup of early states: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, has said both parties' primaries must be held on the same day to minimize the costs of administering elections.

Wendy Davis, a DNC member from Georgia, said state Democrats now have to work to convince "Republican leaders that [moving the primary up] is good for our state, not just that it's good for Joe Biden."

Davis points to the outsized attention states receive when they are slotted in the early window, along with the major economic boon that comes with hosting an early primary.

"There's campaign spending there. Ask people in Iowa who sell snow shovels - they sell more snow shovels in a caucus year than they do any other time," she told NPR.

"A lot of money is spent on radio and TV with direct mail, houses buying yard signs, all the things you think of in a campaign," she said. "The reality in my town, for example, which is 35,000 people in Rome, Georgia — people who are running for president will be buying radio ads on our little radio stations. That's an influx of revenue that if we are on Super Tuesday, we don't get."

But just like Democrats, Republicans could face their own penalties, including a loss of delegates, for holding their primary out of order.

New calendar not set in stone

The DNC will meet again in June to review where Georgia and New Hampshire stand in meeting the party's requirements.

Biden has encouraged the DNC to revisit the process of evaluating states for the early window every four years.

Elleithee said the current calendar "makes a lot of sense for a race in which we have an incumbent Democratic president running for reelection with no serious opposition."

Biden has not yet officially announced his reelection bid.

"It might not be the calendar that makes sense in 2028 when we have a wide open field," Elleithee said. "And so we'll be making decisions on what makes sense in that environment. Doing this now sets the precedent that we can do it moving forward, when it's going to have an even greater impact."

Robertson of the South Carolina Democratic Party said revisiting the calendar each cycle is critical.

"The fact is that the only way you survive is to evaluate, adapt and change," he said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.