The Democratic party’s rationale for shaking up its presidential primary process was fairly straightforward: the current system is dominated by two predominantly white states who vote first, giving people of color little say in choosing the potential next president.
Facing fuming New Hampshire officials, however, and a Georgia Republican party happy to meddle in Democrats’ plans, the Joe Biden-led effort to make things more equitable now looks increasingly in peril.
New Hampshire, which has held the first presidential primary for decades, is proving itself particularly unyielding, raising the prospect of a rogue vote taking place in the state.
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) approved a new primary schedule in December 2022, which would see the most significant changes to the way a potential president is selected in decades.
Under the new plan, Iowa – which holds its vote under a complex caucus system – and New Hampshire, the two states which have led off the voting since the modern day presidential nominating process began in the 1970s, would be nudged down the calendar – with Iowa in particular punted way down the schedule, following a shambolic counting process in 2020.
Instead, Democrats want South Carolina, a more racially diverse state than Iowa and New Hampshire, to have first say in whom the Democratic party should nominate for president. The proposal would see New Hampshire vote a week later, along with Nevada, while Georgia – another racially diverse state, and one which was crucial to Joe Biden’s 2020 victory and Democrats’ successful holding of the Senate in 2022 – would go next.
The plan hit a snag last week, however, when New Hampshire and Georgia asked for more time to meet the DNC’s requirements. The committee said it remained hopeful the new calendar would take effect in 2024, and it plans a full vote on the schedule next month, but it is clear that officials in New Hampshire and Georgia have other ideas.
David Scanlan, who as New Hampshire’s secretary of state is in charge of selecting the date of the primary, suggested he would move the vote forward anyway.
He told WMUR9: “I’m going to wait to set the date. There is a lot that can happen between now and next fall,” Scanlan said.
“We have the luxury of just being patient and watching. We’ll see how the landscape develops and then at the right time we will announce the date of our primary.”
Part of the issue is that New Hampshire has a law that states that the New Hampshire primary should be held on the second Tuesday in March, or “on a date selected by the secretary of state which is seven days or more immediately preceding the date on which any other state shall hold a similar election”.
The date of the primary has been moved forward several times over the years to preserve New Hampshire’s “first in the nation” status. In 2008, Michigan and Florida moved their primary dates forward, in defiance of the DNC’s official calendar, and party bosses reacted by cutting the number of delegates assigned to each state. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton agreed not to campaign in either state, although the issue would become contentious when the DNC later decided to grant Michigan and Florida delegates after all.
But as well as being law, at least some of the furore is about a desire to cling on to the first-primary-in-the-nation status, said Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.
“It’s really much more about political culture, and it’s about political elites really enjoying their moment in the spotlight,” Scala said.
“They’re exceedingly protective; they’re exceedingly reluctant to give it up. They love the access that the primary brings in terms of access to candidates. Every party activist, Democratic or Republican, seemingly has a story to tell about their rubbing elbows with candidate X, or having a picture taken with such a person, all that sort of thing.”
Democrats in New Hampshire have reacted angrily to the new plan. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, New Hampshire’s Democratic senators, skipped an annual congressional ball at the White House in December in protest, while Raymond Buckley, the chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic party, has described the plan as “unrealistic and unattainable”.
In Georgia, the DNC faces a different problem. The state is led by Republicans, including Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, who sets the primary date. Raffensberger has said he wants both primaries on the same day, and the Republican party has already said that its first four states will be in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
At the moment, the scheduling could be theoretical. Biden has indicated he will run in 2024, making it unlikely there would be a serious Democratic primary. But the party is also keen to shake up the schedule in 2028 and beyond – possibly with a different state order each election cycle – meaning New Hampshire’s days of going first could be doomed either way.
Scala and Caitlin Jewitt, a political scientist at Virginia Tech university, said it was unlikely New Hampshire would back down, raising the prospect of an unwanted – by party leaders – first primary in 2024.
Should that happen, the Democratic party could ask candidates not to campaign in New Hampshire, and not put their names on the ballot in the state. That would require the candidates to agree, but with the Republican primary taking place early in the state – something which will bring thousands of members of the media and national attention – it could be hard to resist.
Jewitt said the DNC could also strip New Hampshire of its delegates, who cast votes for their chosen candidate at the party’s pre-presidential convention, effectively rendering the primary redundant.
“That is supposed to be a punishment: you won’t have as much influence on the outcome, but it has never been very effective to stage because New Hampshire’s influence has never been that they have a large number of delegates and they can influence the outcome at the national convention.
“Their influence has always been the media attention and the candidate attention and having this first in the nation primary.”