Democrats are considering big changes to the primary process ahead of 2024

Caucusgoers are seen here in Carpenter, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 2020. If the Democratic National Convention revamps the presidential nominating process, Iowa could lose its "first in the nation" status.

Steve Pope / Steve Pope

The Democratic National Committee is opening the door to significant changes to how the party picks presidential candidates in the future.

Members of the Rules and Bylaws Committee, which governs the nominating process, are meeting this week to consider a proposal that would overhaul the party’s traditional calendar, in which Iowa’s caucuses go first, followed by primaries in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

Instead, committee members are discussing a proposal that would require states or territories to apply if they want to hold a nominating contest before Super Tuesday in early March, and up to five early contests would be allowed.

At the last meeting of the committee, many members voiced support for the plan.

“We cannot be stuck in a 50-year-old calendar when we’re trying to win 2022 and 2o24 elections,” committee member Leah Daughtry said during the virtual meeting. “It has to be an ever-evolving process.”

The potential changes come after years of criticism for Iowa and New Hampshire

In 2020, neither of the first two states’ winners went on to win the Democratic presidential nomination. And many have argued that neither state, both of which are largely white, is diverse enough to lead the nominating process.

Ross Wilburn, the chair of Iowa’s Democratic Party, pushed back, arguing that Democrats must show they can address the needs of a diversifying rural America.

“Nationally, if Democrats can’t figure out how to talk to Iowans, then we’re in big trouble as a party,” he told NPR. “It’s no secret that the national Democratic Party has been losing seats across the country because of its weakened appeal to rural working class Americans. Small rural states like Iowa must have a voice in our presidential nominating process.”

Wilburn said he plans to make the case for why Iowa’s caucuses remain first when the DNC finalizes its process. He also pointed to the fact that his state has given flight to upstart politicians, like the winner of Iowa’s 2008 caucuses.

“Again, don’t forget there would not be a President Obama without Iowa. There simply wouldn’t,” he said.

When states and territories apply to become a part of the early nominating window, the DNC is considering prioritizing states that can show they have a diverse electorate, competitiveness in the general election, and hold primaries instead of caucuses.

Michigan and New Jersey Democrats want to move to the front of the calendar

“Iowa showed the disaster of a caucus in the last election,” said Michigan Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell, referencing various logistical and technological challenges in 2020 that made it difficult for Iowa to name the winner of its caucuses.

Dingell is already pushing for her state to get early status. Dingell’s involvement was first reported by The Washington Post.

She said Michigan’s status as a closely divided purple state is one of the reasons it is well positioned to be part of the early window. President Biden won Michigan by a narrow margin in 2020. In 2016, former President Donald Trump did so by an even slimmer margin.

“It’s a state that reflects the great diversity of our country. We have urban areas, we have rural areas. We have manufacturing, we have farming. We have rich, different cultures, all types of backgrounds,” Dingell told NPR.

Similar efforts are already underway in states like New Jersey, where state party Chair LeRoy Jones has been pushing the Democratic Party to consider his state, which normally votes in June.

“We have to use the past as a barometer on how effectively we can move forward. We saw some interesting things occur in the Iowa caucuses that kind of left folks with a little eyebrows raised,” Jones told NPR. “And the whole notion of the caucuses may have had its day, at least in the beginning part of the presidential primary. We think that New Jersey offers an enhanced benefit to voter engagement.”

Jones said that New Jersey’s diversity, as well as its relatively compact size, make it a good fit.

“You have a collaboration of population, of diversity, of tourism, of transportation ease. I think that has particular value added to the process.”

Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire have argued that their size allows presidential candidates to have a chance to break through before moving on to larger states in major media markets where campaigning is more expensive.

Rules and Bylaws Committee member David McDonald of Washington state raised that issue at the committee’s last virtual meeting.

“I hope that we will continue to have the upfront window be as accessible as possible to candidates and not slide into a situation where essentially we end up with four large states up front in an election decided based on mass media markets,” he said.

Asked about arguments that the process should be led by small states, Dingell of Michigan pushed back.

“Why should two disparate small states that don’t reflect the diversity of this country be the ones that presidential candidates go into their homes?” Dingell said. “I think presidential candidates should have to home into a state like ours and do retail politics, not hide behind an ad on TV.”

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