On the Trail: 2023 rocked NH’s first-in-the-nation primary

Then Former Vice President Joe Biden greets rally participants at the State House during his rally after signing up for the New Hampshire Primary at the Secretary of State off on Friday, November 8, 2019.

Then Former Vice President Joe Biden greets rally participants at the State House during his rally after signing up for the New Hampshire Primary at the Secretary of State off on Friday, November 8, 2019. Bloomberg

By PAUL STEINHAUSER

For the Monitor

Published: 12-29-2023 2:14 PM

Frigid weather kept temperatures well below freezing across the entire Northeast as the sun rose on the morning of Saturday, Feb. 4.

But inside a downtown hotel in Philadelphia, Democratic Party politics was heating up.

A few hours later, the Democratic National Committee overwhelmingly voted to dramatically alter the top of the party’s presidential nominating calendar for the 2024 election cycle, bumping Iowa and New Hampshire from their longtime leadoff positions.

The push by the DNC to upend its primary calendar – to give more representation at the top of the schedule to Black and Hispanic voters in a party that’s become increasingly diverse in recent decades – had been vigorously fought by New Hampshire, which for a century has held the first primary in the race for the White House.

Longtime New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Ray Buckley, on the eve of the vote, called the move by the DNC “mind-boggling” and a “self-inflicted wound” that would hurt the chances of Democratic candidates in 2024 in the key northeastern general election battleground state.

The vote by the DNC’s nearly 500 voting members gathered for the party’s winter meeting was the final approval needed for a proposal made by President Joe Biden in late 2022 to move South Carolina to the lead position in the Democrats’ primary calendar. Under the president’s plan, South Carolina would hold its primary on Feb. 3, 2024, with New Hampshire and Nevada holding primaries three days later.

It was a major switch from the longtime calendar, which had seen the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary lead off the process for five decades. But many Democrats for years had knocked both states as unrepresentative of the party as a whole, for being largely white with few major urban areas. Nevada and South Carolina, which in recent cycles have voted third and fourth in the calendar, are much more diverse than either Iowa or New Hampshire.

The president and supporters of the plan argued that it would empower minority voter whom Democrats have long relied on but have at times taken for granted.

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“This committee put together a calendar proposal that reflects our values and will strengthen our party. This calendar does what is long overdue. It expands the number of voices in the early window. And it elevates diverse communities that are at core of the Democratic Party,” DNC chair Jaime Harrison said. “The Democratic Party looks like America, and so does this proposal.”

Electoral politics may have also been behind the move.

Biden came in a distant fourth in the 2020 Iowa caucuses and fifth in the New Hampshire primary, before rebounding to a second-place finish in Nevada. Biden then won South Carolina — where Black voters play an outsized role in Democratic Party primaries — in a landslide, boosting him towards his party’s nomination and eventually the White House. Biden’s push to move South Carolina to the top of the 2024 calendar was seen by many pundits as a move to ease his path towards renomination in 2024.

In the weeks ahead of the DNC’s vote, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu and the state GOP repeatedly slammed Biden and the Democrats, with Sununu reiterating that “we’re going first no matter what.”

Buckley, pointing to the incoming political fire, warned that weekend in Philadelphia that “Republicans have already begun to attack Democrats over this proposed calendar, and we expect them to use it as a wedge for New Hampshire’s fiercely independent electorate going into 2024.”

To comply with the DNC’s new calendar, New Hampshire needed to scrap its state law protecting its first-in-the-nation primary status and expand access to early voting. But with Republicans in control of New Hampshire’s governor’s office and both houses of the state legislature, state Democrats repeatedly argued the DNC’s demands were a non-starter.

Implementing the DNC’s calendar was anything but easy.

South Carolina Democrats were on board, but Palmetto State Republicans will hold their primary later in February. Nevada Democrats were game, but the Silver State’s GOP — after an unsuccessful legal push to opt out of a Feb. 6 primary — moved to hold a Republican presidential caucus two days later. And in Georgia – which was supposed to move up to early state status according to the Democrats’ calendar - the Republican secretary of state rebuffed the DNC.

Iowa, which was left out of the DNC’s early voting states calendar, did end up complying with the DNC. Iowa Democrats will hold their caucus on Jan. 15, the same day that the Republican caucuses will kick off the GOP’s 2024 nominating schedule. But they’ll also hold a vote by mail presidential preference caucus during the ensuing weeks, and the results from the in-person caucus and mail in votes won’t be revealed until March.

Unlike Iowa, New Hampshire didn’t budge.

“The date of the New Hampshire first-in-the-nation presidential primary will be Jan. 23,” Secretary of State Dave Scanlan announced in front of a crowd of national and local reporters, state officials and lawmakers, the Democratic and Republican state party chairs, other political leaders, and dignitaries crowded into the Hall of Flags at the State House in Concord on Nov. 15.

The state will now face sanctions from the Democrats, which could result in the loss of half of New Hampshire’s delegates to next summer’s national convention. Holding an unsanctioned primary led the president to keep his name off the New Hampshire ballot, but Granite State Democrats launched a write-in campaign in an attempt to prevent an electoral embarrassment for Biden as he runs for a second term in the White House.

The announcement by Scanlan came a few weeks after the filing period for the presidential primary. The Republicans were making no major changes to their 2024 nominating calendar, and the GOP contenders – including front-runner and former President Donald Trump – all showed up in person to file at the Secretary of State’s office.

So did two long-shot Democratic challengers to President Biden – three-term U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota, one of the wealthiest members of Congress – who formally announced his presidential bid as he filed at the State House on Oct. 27 – and bestselling author and spiritual adviser Marianne Williamson, who is making her second straight White House run.

But the president steered clear of New Hampshire.

Sununu has argued that “the precedent that President Biden has potentially set is no Democrat will ever dare try to skip New Hampshire again. Because I think it’s really going to hurt President Biden. It’s going to hurt his chances. It hurts the Democratic Party as a whole. They’ve tried every which way to move us off of our law, which we’re obviously not going to do…. Skip New Hampshire at your own peril.”

But longtime New Hampshire based Democrat consultant Jim Demers — a top Biden supporter in the Granite State who’s helping to lead the primary ballot write-in effort on behalf of the president — disagreed with Sununu’s prediction that the battle over the primary date will impact Democrats next November.

“I think once the nomination is locked up, the convention takes place, Joe Biden will be back in New Hampshire campaigning,” Demers told the Monitor.

Regardless of whether the primary controversy impacts the ballot box in New Hampshire next November, one thing is certain – the fight over the state’s first-in-the-nation primary status is far from over.

The DNC’s revamped calendar is in effect just for the 2024 cycle, with a new battle over the 2028 schedule still to come.