9 min read

RIP Iowa caucuses (maybe)

Democrats are poised to end a decades-long political tradition: the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.
RIP Iowa caucuses (maybe)
Jimmy Carter during the 1976 campaign. (Library of Congress)

Good morning! It’s Monday, December 5, 2022. The 2024 elections are 701 days away.

It’s going to be another busy week in politics. Tomorrow is the Georgia Senate runoff. Then, on Wednesday, the Supreme Court is set to consider a case that could have major implications for the future of elections. I’ll be covering it all here at Wake Up To Politics, so stick around.

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Democratic panel votes to make South Carolina first primary state, replacing Iowa

A key Democratic Party panel voted Friday to make the most significant changes to the presidential primary calendar in decades, punting South Carolina ahead of longtime first-in-the-nation contests Iowa and New Hampshire.

Here’s the 2024 early state primary lineup that was approved by the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee:

  • February 3: South Carolina
  • February 6: Nevada and New Hampshire
  • February 13: Georgia
  • February 27: Michigan

The new plan was spearheaded by President Biden, who surprised members of the committee — including those from South Carolina — with his proposal.

Biden said his proposed lineup would emphasize the diversity of the Democratic Party, prioritizing states with sizable Black (South Carolina, Georgia, Michigan) and Latino (Nevada) populations over the largely-white Iowa.

“For decades, Black voters in particular have been the backbone of the Democratic Party but have been pushed to the back of the early primary process,” the president explained in a letter to the Rules and Bylaws panel. “We rely on these voters in elections but have not recognized their importance in our nominating calendar. It is time to stop taking these voters for granted, and time to give them a louder and earlier voice in the process.”

The lineup still must be approved by the full Democratic National Committee.

Iowa voters at a 2020 caucus meeting. (Wikimedia Commons)

If the revamped Democratic calendar sticks, it would put an end to a decades-long political tradition: the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.

In a political system that is full of arcane institutions — from the Electoral College to the filibuster — the Iowa caucuses might be the quirkiest of them all, a time-honored ritual that forces would-be commanders-in-chief to gladhand voters at intimate events across the state and awkwardly feast on fried food at the annual state fair.

Iowa first moved to the front of the presidential nominating process in 1972, largely because the state just decided to, and the tradition stuck after 1976, when Hawkeye State voters took a virtually-unknown governor named Jimmy Carter and set him on the path to the White House. Iowans would later be credited with fueling the rise of other unlikely presidential contenders, including Barack Obama.

But the Iowa caucuses took a reputational hit in 2020, after the state Democratic Party’s tabulation process broke down and a winner couldn’t be declared for days. The contest’s chaotic aftermath combined with existing concerns about Iowa’s lack of diversity and confusing caucus process to set Democrats on a path towards killing the tradition.

Under Biden’s plan for 2024, Iowa would drop out of the early window entirely. (Republicans have said they plan to maintain the traditional early state calendar of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina — in that order.)

Elizabeth Warren at the Iowa State Fair in 2019. (Phil Roeder)

Three observations about the new calendar

1) For 2024, advantage Joe Biden. The sitting president has a long — and frosty — relationship with the Iowa caucuses. He placed fifth in the state in 2008 and fourth in 2020, becoming the first Democrat since 1992 to win the party’s presidential nomination without winning Iowa. Biden’s eventual nomination was largely due to his landslide victory in the South Carolina primary, fueled by support among Black voters.

In some ways, then, Biden’s new calendar simply punishes the state that spurned him and rewards the one that launched him. But it also makes official what has already been true for several cycles now: Black voters hold the keys to victory in Democratic primary politics, making the predictive power of Iowa and New Hampshire dimmer than ever.

Not coincidentally, the calendar changes also serve to insulate Biden from a hypothetical primary challenge in 2024. If Biden were to face a Democratic challenger, Iowa and New Hampshire are the exact type of states that might give them oxygen. They’re small states where it’s not hard for an upstart candidate to park yourself for two years and win over influential activists, who tend to be to the left of the national parties. (Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 and George H.W. Bush in 1992 saw versions of this play out, or almost play out.)

But with South Carolina, where he is much more popular, up first, 80-year-old Biden will be much safer from any potential challenge; the new calendar also gives more prominence to larger states, where it is more expensive to wage a viable campaign.

Meanwhile, for those wondering, party insiders are taking Biden’s proposal — and his focus on the calendar at all — as a key sign that he will seek re-election in 2024 after all. “Given the president’s strong interest in the design of the 2024 primaries, and the dates for them, I think it’s clear that he’s running,” James Roosevelt Jr., the co-chairman of the Rules and Bylaws Committee, told the New York Times.

Kamala Harris at the Iowa State Fair in 2019. (Phil Roeder)

2) For 2028, advantage Kamala Harris. Right now, conventional wisdom dictates that, despite sitting second-in-line to the presidency, Kamala Harris is far from an odds-on favorite to become the next Democratic nominee after Joe Biden. Last week, a Washington Post blog named Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg — not Harris — as the most likely Democrat to win the nomination in a Biden-less primary.  

But that thinking elides the fact that polls show Harris as the unquestioned favorite of Black voters — and Buttigieg in the low single digits with the key demographic. The 2024 calendar changes wouldn’t necessarily roll over into 2028, but if the new lineup does continue, the promotion of South Carolina, Georgia, and Michigan would be a major boon for Harris. Without priority given to the Iowa caucuses that his 2020 campaign, Buttigieg would be at a notable disadvantage.  

Other possible future White House contenders who stand to gain from the new calendar: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, who could use favorite son/daughter status in their home states to catapult to the nomination.

3) Iowa and New Hampshire are not going down without a fight. Democrats in both states have decried Biden’s decision and threatened to move forward with their early contests anyways. Consider these tweets from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH):

As Shaheen noted, it’s written in New Hampshire law that the state must hold the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. (Iowa has a similar provision, but for caucuses.) If the states choose to enforce those statutes, Democrats have said they will respond by stripping the states of their delegates at the nominating conventions — and possibly even punishing candidates who campaign in states outside the early window.

But this brings up a bigger issue for Democrats: political parties don’t really control the timing of primaries, the states do. And in states impacted by the new plan that are controlled by Republicans (like Iowa, South Carolina, and Georgia), there is no guarantee the states will go along and schedule their primaries as the Democrats want, creating a complicated quandary.

So don’t go writing your Iowa caucus obituaries just yet: the 2024 primary calendar is far from set in stone, with plenty of time for a host of competing interests to throw up hurdles and stand in the Democrats’ way.

🚨 What else you should know

➞ Former President Donald Trump, who is waging a comeback White House bid in 2024, suggested on Saturday that the Constitution should be thrown out to allow him to return to power. “A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution,” he said on Truth Social, his social media platform.

Trump’s comment was sparked by Elon Musk’s release of “The Twitter Files,” which revealed Twitter’s internal deliberations over the decision to suppress a 2020 story about Hunter Biden’s laptop. Although the company relied on faulty assumptions about the laptop being hacked, the files did not establish any proof of government interference in the decisionmaking.

Congressional Republicans have largely ignored Trump’s call to terminate the Constitution, with exceptions including Sen. Lisa Murkowksi (R-AK) and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY).

➞ “Republican hopes fade as Warnock momentum picks up in Georgia” Politico

➞ “Official says Iran shutting down morality police after 2 months of protests” CBS News

🗓 What your leaders are doing today

All times Eastern. Click on an event’s time to watch or listen to it.

Executive Branch

President Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing (9 am) and host the Congressional Ball, an annual holiday event for members of Congress and their families (6:30 pm). Vice President Harris, First Lady Biden, and Second Gentleman Emhoff will all attend as well.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre will hold her daily press briefing (2 pm).

Legislative Branch

The Senate will convene (3 pm) and hold one vote: on confirmation of Doris Pryor to be a U.S. Circuit Judge for the Seventh Circuit.

The House will convene (12 pm). The chamber is not expected to hold any votes.

Judicial Branch

The Supreme Court will hold oral arguments in 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis (10 am) and MOAC Mall Holdings LLC v. Transform Holdco LLC (11 am).

303 Creative is one of the most highly anticipated Supreme Court cases of the year, a sequel of sorts to a 2018 case in which the justices ruled in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple — but dodged the broader First Amendment issues at play.

Today, those issues will return to the court, as the same Colorado public accommodations law — which prohibits businesses that serve the public from discriminating by sexual orientation — is being challenged again, this time by web designer Lorie Smith. Smith wants to launch a wedding website design business, and says Colorado is infringing on her free-speech rights by prohibiting her from including a message on the site saying she won’t serve same-sex couples because of her religion.

Not nearly as anticipated is MOAC Mall Holdings, a bankruptcy case tied to the fall of Sears department stores.

👋 Before I go...

Here’s something uplifting: The story of Patricia Gallagher, a Philadelphia woman who collects thousands of stuffed animals each holiday season and gives them out — not to kids, but to seniors, to try to brighten their days at a time when they might be feeling lonely.

“I’ve always heard of the giver’s high — I didn’t know what that meant — but honestly, when you give, you really do get more back,” Gallagher told CBS News. “Every morning... I have a purpose.” Click to read the full story:

This woman collects thousands of stuffed animals and brings them to seniors who are in need of a Christmas gift
“Who would think that elderly veterans would want stuffed animals? But they did,” Patricia Gallagher said of the project.

👍 Thanks for reading.

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— Gabe