LAS VEGAS – Democrats in Nevada are making a play to bump Iowa and New Hampshire from their early spots on the presidential primary calendar. If successful, it would upend decades of political tradition and give a more urban and racially diverse group of voters a greater say in picking the party's nominee.
The behind-the-scenes lobbying, led by former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, seeks to capitalize on the party's discontent with Iowa's and New Hampshire's performances last year. Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses devolved into a technological and logistical mess, leaving the winner unclear. New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary wound up a near tie between two candidates who ultimately lost, while the eventual nominee, now-President Joe Biden, came in fifth.
The results have reignited debate over whether voters in the small, overwhelmingly white states should continue to weigh in first or whether that privilege should go to a state more representative of the party's voters. In the November election, 94% of Iowa voters were white and 56% lived in rural, small towns, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of the electorate, while 74% of voters in the U.S. were white and 35% lived in rural, small towns.
Notably, advocates are pushing for changes as early as 2024 — a timeline that reflects doubts that Biden will seek a second term and early preparation for the possibility of a competitive nomination fight.
Reid, a party kingmaker who secured Nevada's No. 3 spot on the calendar in 2008, has been making the case for Nevada to one of the top aides to Biden, who as president has significant influence on the Democratic National Committee. Nevada Democrats also plan to make their case in the coming months to the DNC, which sets the party's nominating process. Meanwhile, the state's Democratic-majority Legislature is set to consider legislation that would shift Nevada’s caucuses to a primary and make it the first contest in the states.
Iowa and New Hampshire defenders aren't willing to let their statuses slip without a fight. They have long argued that their small, largely rural electorate is a benefit — forcing candidates to make frequent contact with voters and not just rely on name recognition or advertising cash.
“I understand these people say, ‘New Hampshire is 98% white, blah blah blah,’ but I think New Hampshire is above that. We look at the content of the character,” said Billy Shaheen, a DNC member in New Hampshire and the husband of U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
Iowa Democrats say they are willing to fight for their coveted position, but many acknowledge it’s an uphill battle after last year’s debacle, blamed on widespread problems with a mobile phone app and jammed phone hotline. There are persistent questions about the accuracy of the results, and The Associated Press did not declare a winner. According to the Iowa Democratic Party’s final results reported more than three weeks after the caucuses, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg narrowly beat Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Biden finished fourth.
Some of the state party's governing committee acknowledge there's internal debate over whether the leadoff caucus is worth fighting over.
“I’d say the party is pretty well split on the notion of whether it is in our best interest to continue doing a caucus versus going to a primary,” said committee member Sandy Dockendorff, from rural southeast Iowa. Dockendorff is among those arguing to hold the top spot, as is the newly elected state party chair, state Rep. Ross Wilburn.
But others say Iowa Democrats should instead be focused on winning elections — after years of watching the state trend Republican.
Nevada will also have to contend with South Carolina, currently the fourth state on the list. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn has said he'd like to see his home state pushed ahead in the order, arguing that the state is more reflective of the nation overall and how it will vote. But it's unclear if South Carolina will go as far as Nevada in pushing to jump the calendar.
Despite Biden's lackluster performance in Iowa and New Hampshire, his double-digit win in South Carolina — where Clyburn’s endorsement provided a beneficial boost — helped propel him to victories on Super Tuesday and beyond.
Recent Democratic Party leadership changes could have a direct effect on South Carolina’s status in particular. Jaime Harrison, a Clyburn’s protégé who calls the congressman his “political dad,” took over last month as DNC chair.
DNC spokesperson David Bergstein said the committee is evaluating the process. “Every four years, the DNC looks back at what worked and what didn’t work,” he said.
The party overhauled its nominating process after the bitter 2016 contest between Hillary Clinton and Sanders, encouraging many states to shift away from caucuses — an arcane set of party-run, in-person meetings involving complicated math — to government-run primary elections seen as easier to participate in.
Nevada was one of the few states to hold onto its caucus, but it appears ready to make the change. Nevada Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, a Democrat, said he thinks he’ll attract bipartisan support for his bill switching to a presidential primary and making it the first state on the calendar for both major parties.
Frierson said his proposal is not designed to be contingent on the parties' approval.
“I’m not a believer in allowing our state policies to be dictated by folks outside the state,” Frierson said.
Frierson, Reid and other Nevada Democrats argue that Nevada, where Biden finished second to Sanders in the 2020 caucuses, is a better choice than Iowa or New Hampshire because it's a more competitive battleground in the general election, has a strong union presence and has demographics that closely mirror the U.S. as a whole, making it a good barometer of a candidate's national appeal.
They also point to the party's growing political power in the West. Democrats in November flipped Republican-held U.S. Senate seats in Colorado and Arizona, while Biden became only the second Democratic presidential candidate in 70 years to win Arizona.
Reid said that he thinks the DNC is open to getting rid of its caucuses altogether but that it will be a tough fight for Nevada to jump the calendar because New Hampshire has a state law requiring its presidential primary to be held at least seven days ahead of any other similar contest. The law also gives the New Hampshire secretary of state the exclusive power to set the primary date.
New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner shrugged off Nevada’s plans to jump the calendar.
“There’s probably going to be a lot more of this,” Gardner said. “We’ll deal with it when the time comes, if it happens. Our law hasn’t changed. the position of the state hasn’t changed.”
Associated Press writers Holly Ramer in Concord, N.H., Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C., Steve Peoples in New York and Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.