New Hampshire is not entitled to hold the first primary
Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden (right), the former vice president, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont participate in the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on Feb. 25, 2020, in Charleston, South Carolina. (Win McNamee | Getty Images)
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said that the only constant in life is change. The Democratic Party illustrated that point recently by electing a new generation of leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives and by rearranging the order of states to hold presidential primaries for the 2024 election.
The latter change was the work of the party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, which gave near-unanimous approval to President Joe Biden’s proposal to eliminate the Iowa caucuses from the early round of nominating contests and to substitute South Carolina for New Hampshire as the first primary.
The president’s plan would upend a 50-year precedent of Iowa and New Hampshire being the first two states to choose delegates in presidential election years. Under the plan, South Carolina would conduct the first 2024 presidential primary on Feb. 3, a Saturday, to be followed by Nevada and New Hampshire on Feb. 6, Georgia on Feb. 13, and Michigan on Feb. 27. This plan, which the Democratic National Committee will vote on early in 2023, drew favorable votes from all members of the Rules and Bylaws Committee except, predictably, the members from Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively.
Equally predictable were the negative reactions to the vote by New Hampshire voters, political operatives, and politicians, including Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, who expressed anger and disappointment at the result. Joanne Dowdell, New Hampshire’s representative on the Rules and Bylaws Committee, noted the state law that requires the Granite State to hold its presidential primary on a date “which is 7 days or more immediately preceding the date on which any other state shall hold a similar election …” She vowed that New Hampshire would not break its law to comply with the president’s proposed primary schedule.
That law, though, albeit duly enacted, underscores the weakness of New Hampshire’s argument for continuing its status as the first presidential primary state every four years. The last line of this short law states, “The purpose of this section is to protect the tradition of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary.” In effect, the law says, “We should continue to be first because, for as long as anybody remembers, we have always been first.” By that logic, white males should still run the Democratic Party, presumably while enjoying bourbon and cigars far removed from rank-and-file voters. That was the tradition in both political parties, after all, for more than a century. Tradition is weak reason for continuing to advantage one state over other equally deserving states in our presidential nominating process.
Admittedly, a stronger reason exists for keeping New Hampshire first: its relatively small population and compact size, which enables “retail”-style campaigning in intimate venues and reduces the importance of television advertising to candidate success. And I acknowledge my fondness for seeing presidential candidates, especially those from the Sun Belt, traipsing through snow in the North Country to speak to small groups of voters in cozy living rooms and quaint town halls. But if preserving retail politics is the goal, why can’t Vermont host the first primary from time to time? It is even smaller and quainter than New Hampshire and is just as likely to have snow in February. Similarly, either Rhode Island or Delaware would enable relatively inexpensive retail campaigning, too. New Hampshire need not go first to foster small-scale politics.
Although no compelling reason exists for keeping New Hampshire first, two strong reasons support President Biden’s alternative. One is the ever-present need in politics to reward one’s friends for their past support so as to encourage their continued support. No voters are more deserving of such a reward than the Democrats of South Carolina – predominantly African Americans – who resuscitated his wobbly campaign in 2020 and launched him on his way to the White House. He will need their support again in 2024 if he seeks reelection.
The other reason to substitute South Carolina for New Hampshire as the first primary state flows from the first reason. South Carolina’s electorate is about one-quarter African American, which reflects the racial diversity of the United States and of the Democratic Party today in a way that New Hampshire, which, according to the 2020 census, is 89.1 percent white, cannot. In an increasingly diverse America and Democratic Party, it stands to reason that the Democrats would reward South Carolina over New Hampshire for its past political support and racial diversity.
Under these circumstances, I hope that New Hampshire will comply with President Biden’s plan. It is temporary; the president has stressed that it applies for 2024 only and can be changed for 2028. Moreover, as Heraclitus teaches us, nothing stays the same forever, not even the New Hampshire primary.
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