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The first spot in the Democrats’ presidential nominating calendar is up for grabs

Iowa is on the outs, and the DNC is allowing wannabe early states to apply in the coming weeks.

Committee members wait for the beginning of a meeting of the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaw Committee on April 13, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Committee members wait for the beginning of a meeting of the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaw Committee on April 13, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty

Update, May 11, 2022: This post has been updated with the full list of states intending to apply for for early nominating contest positions.

Democrats may finally knock the Iowa caucuses out of their prized first position in the presidential nominating process, in what could be that calendar’s biggest shakeup in decades.

States that want a shot at holding an early primary or caucus had to submit a letter of intent to the Democratic National Committee last week. And the existing early states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina — had to reapply, arguing why they deserve their spots.

A total overhaul is unlikely, but Iowa is in real danger of being moved from the start of the early lineup or dropped from it after the botched 2020 caucuses, which were plagued with technical difficulties and extraordinarily slow reporting of results. A new Midwestern state could be added to the mix, as could a fifth early state, and the order could be changed.

The calendar is crucial to the United States’ lengthy and convoluted presidential nominating process. States that go early have few delegates, but an outsized impact on the contest’s overall narrative — they can elevate and winnow out contenders before bigger states weigh in.

So choices about the early states and their sequence made now could help determine the identity of future presidents. Joe Biden led national polls of Democrats as 2020 began, but his poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire nearly wrecked his chances. Then, his strength in another early state, South Carolina, saved him right before Super Tuesday. If South Carolina wasn’t in that lineup, Biden might well not be president today.

Still, this rollercoaster of contests is a rather odd way to pick a nominee as compared to the simpler alternative of a national primary vote. There are justifications — most notably that starting with small states gives less-known contenders a chance to distinguish themselves — but the impact of the early states can often feel random and arbitrary. Without a more sweeping overhaul to the system, that won’t change.

This is mostly about demoting Iowa

No one person or group dictates the primary calendar from the top down; state governments or state parties set their own dates for their nominating contests. But the earliest part of the calendar is the one area where national party leaders have used a heavy hand. Only certain states are granted permission to hold primaries before a certain date (recently, that’s been the first Tuesday in March). If other states try to jump the line, the parties will threaten to strip them of some or all of their delegates to the convention.

Iowa and New Hampshire had placed themselves in front of the pack for decades, but by the mid-2000s Democrats were feeling increasingly queasy about that. Both states are heavily white, and not very representative of the Democratic Party’s voter base. So in 2006, the DNC decided that two more racially diverse states, Nevada and South Carolina, would get special permission to hold early contests (after Iowa and New Hampshire). Republicans followed suit, and despite some ill-fated attempts by other states to move earlier, this four-state roster gradually became the status quo.

But Democrats have grown increasingly dissatisfied with Iowa’s role, for several reasons. Racial diversity remains a concern, with the first two states still being small white ones. Iowa has also become a safely Republican state in general elections, rather than a swing state Democrats hope to keep in their camp. Others have long criticized caucus systems generally for lacking a secret ballot and requiring too great a time commitment from voters.

The biggest problem, though, is that the two most recent Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses were controversial and messy. The issue in 2016 was a lack of a paper trail on the actual vote count for the caucuses (which happen predominantly through in-person discussions). Because of that, reforms for 2020 were aimed at increasing transparency, but in practice they complicated the reporting process, badly slowing down the process of getting results, which ended up taking about a week. Technical difficulties and obvious errors in the count made the whole thing look like a clown show.

Basically, Democrats felt they’ve granted Iowa this enormous authority over their nomination contest for so long, and that lately Iowa has been screwing it up.

Step right up, and apply to be an early state!

Rather than explicitly target Iowa, the DNC has put the whole slate of early states up for grabs. The Democratic Party from any state that wants to hold an early contest can apply to do so. The states that already have such contests need to apply again, too (so Iowa Democrats will get a chance to make their case).

The DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee will review these applications and come up with a proposed early state lineup. Then the full DNC will have to approve their choices. The committee said last month that it will consider having up to five states go early, and laid out the standards they’ll use to judge the applicants.

1) Diversity: Democrats want the overall early state lineup to demonstrate racial and ethnic diversity, as well as economic diversity and union representation. They also want at least one state from each of the country’s four regions: Northeast, Midwest, South, and West.

2) Competitiveness: They also want the overall calendar to “contribute to the party’s ability to win in the general election.” Many have interpreted this as a suggestion that swing states will get a leg up.

3) Feasibility: Democrats are also going to consider whether states actually can move their contests earlier (for instance, some might have a Republican legislature that won’t cooperate), whether they seem capable of running a “fair, transparent and inclusive” nominating process, and whether the costs and logistics of campaigning there might be too high (meaning big states will face an uphill battle).

These guidelines may significantly narrow the field. For one, they seem tailored to disadvantage Iowa, which is not racially diverse, is no longer competitive in most general elections, and did not run a competent process in 2020. New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina can all argue they perform well on at least two of those three metrics. And if Iowa is dropped, the regional representation requirement means a Midwestern applicant might be a strong contender as a replacement (though they may not go first).

Any newly approved primary state would also have to be able to move its primary earlier. But the Republican National Committee has already said it plans to stick with the existing calendar. That would suggest that, if Republicans control a state’s governorship or legislature, they might not agree to move it. Alternatively, Democrats in the state could hold a primary administered by the party (rather than the state) or a caucus instead. But the party has lately frowned on caucuses due to accessibility concerns, and on the Democratic side, every state but Iowa has ditched them.

Who is applying, and who has the best shot?

In addition to the existing four early states, the Washington Post reports that Democrats in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Georgia, Texas, Colorado, Washington state, and Puerto Rico all sent letters of intent to the DNC, as did Democrats Abroad (a group for Democrats who live outside the US).

And the standards laid out by the DNC suggest some have more of a shot than others.

The first question will be what happens to Iowa. Though Iowa Democrats will still get to make their case to the DNC (the state party chair has said they’re exploring “changes to the caucuses that would make them more straightforward, transparent and accessible”), it’s widely expected at this point that they will end up either demoted to a later spot in the early state roster, or dropped altogether as an early state.

Moving Iowa to, say, the third, fourth, or a new fifth early slot might seem like the moderate approach. But that would mean the caucuses would remain tremendously important. All the early states matter — recall how important South Carolina’s primary three days before Super Tuesday 2020 was in setting the stage for Biden’s triumph. So if the DNC has lost confidence in Iowa’s caucuses, moving them later in the early state lineup won’t necessarily solve that problem.

In either case, though, Democrats would need another state to go first, and existing early states New Hampshire and Nevada are currently viewed as the main contenders. Both are small in population, general election swing states, and have successfully administered these contests. New Hampshire is less racially diverse, but they also have a state law requiring no primary be held before theirs (Nevada will be switching from caucuses to a primary for 2024) which will cause drama if the DNC tries to put another state ahead of them.

If Iowa does lose its early state spot entirely, the DNC needs another Midwestern state. According to the DNC’s regional categorization, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Nebraska, and Oklahoma are the applicants who’d fit.

Of them, early speculation has focused on Michigan and Minnesota. Racially, Michigan has a larger Black population (13.7 percent) than Minnesota (7 percent), but a greater share of Minnesota’s population is Asian American and American Indian, compared to Michigan’s. Both states are important for Democrats’ electoral math; Michigan is the clearer swing state, but Minnesota did nearly tip to Trump in 2016. Regarding logistics, Michigan is nearly twice as populous as Minnesota, but the two states are of comparable physical size, and Minnesota winters are worse. Republicans hold both chambers of Michigan’s state legislature and Minnesota’s state Senate, so GOP consent would be needed to move the primary in both states.

The hopes of non-Midwestern applicants probably hinge on whether the DNC decided to allow a fifth early state. The path of least resistance may be to stick with just four, since playing favorites might result in bad feelings among states that don’t get picked. Recall the drama that happened last time the DNC expanded the early state map — Florida and Michigan, which weren’t picked, moved their primaries earlier anyway, the DNC barred candidates from campaigning there and threatened to block their delegates, and it was a big mess.

So to justify this bonus slot, a state would probably have to argue that they bring something essential to the table that the incumbent in their region doesn’t.

Interested state party leaders will get to make their pitches — both in public, and in behind-the-scenes politicking — in the coming weeks. Formal applications are due June 3, and the states will give presentations to the Rules and Bylaws Committee later in June.

Is this any way to pick a president?

We shouldn’t lose sight of what’s really happening: The DNC is selecting which states’ voters will get more of an influence on the presidential contest than others.

This is a feature of the way the US’s strange nomination process has evolved, with a staggered series of state contests unfolding over months, mostly timed by the states themselves. Inevitably, some states have to go first. And the media, party insiders, activists, and the candidates themselves all treat those early state results as immensely important. Later contests can impact candidates’ delegate haul, but they don’t have anything close to the power of reshaping the race’s overall narrative.

Defenders of the current system argue that it lets lesser-known candidates make their case in a smaller, more manageable setting (rather than getting swamped by the best-known, best-funded candidate nationally). The early states also perform the function of winnowing the field — narrowing down what can be a large and confusing set of options to a few contenders before most of the country votes.

But the system also has drawbacks. One is simple unfairness: From the Electoral College to the Senate, the US system often treats some states’ voters as more important than others, and the primary calendar creates a similar dynamic. Another is volatility. Does it really make sense to have a major party nominee so heavily influenced by the exact sequence of four states out of fifty that go first?

A total rethink of the nomination system doesn’t seem to be on the table, though. So it may take some time to appreciate the significance of whatever changes are approved this year. It’s possible that 2024 will be a uniquely uncompetitive primary cycle, if Biden and Trump both run and lock down support in their respective parties. But if that changes on either side, things will get very interesting very quickly, with the early states playing a starring role.