The Iowa Caucuses Had to Go. But Democrats Shouldn’t Put South Carolina First.
President Biden’s three-part plan to reform the Democratic presidential primary calendar was almost a home run — save for one flaw that dooms it entirely.
Our party’s lineup of states that nominate our presidential candidates every four years needs to change badly. The 2020 caucuses in Iowa — the state that has been first on the calendar for decades — were a disaster. But even more so, the sequencing of states must be transformed if we’re going to achieve the most important goal of the nominating process: to pick the strongest possible candidate to put before a national audience, and to do so strategically in states that we must win in the general election.
The process should also mirror the democratic ideals underpinning our political system and the Democratic Party — grass roots, civic engagement through representative democracy. Candidates should be compelled to talk to ordinary Americans in conversational settings and persuasively earn their support. And the process needs to reflect the reality of the calendar, which exerts enormous influence on the kinds of candidates that parties select and on where they spend staggering resources.
Mr. Biden and the Democrats tasked with changing the calendar have made three central decisions in their proposal, which party officials unveiled last week and will move through a series of procedural steps and votes this winter and would require the cooperation of states chosen to go early. The first is that the Iowa caucus would no longer begin the process. This is the correct decision.
Being first is a special privilege, and Iowa must be held accountable. Accountability can be a tough pill to swallow; by definition, accountability requires a penalty for wrongdoing.
Since the 1970s, Iowa, the state famous for its unique town-meeting-style caucuses, has had the honor of being the first to register its recommendation for the Democratic nominee for president. Yet on Feb. 3, 2020, as the campaign manager for Bernie Sanders, I witnessed a historic travesty of election justice as Iowa’s Democratic Party-led caucus failed to do the one thing it absolutely had to do: count votes and declare an outcome. The state party was unable to report a winner on caucus night (and for many nights thereafter), over-relying on a faulty mobile app and subsequently pointing fingers at others for its own faults.
In Iowa alone, the Sanders campaign spent millions of dollars on ads and office rentals and hired the largest field staff of any campaign. We made a huge investment in trying to ensure Mr. Sanders would win the state, but its process failed us on election night — and the other Democratic candidates. Iowa failed the country; because it couldn’t make elemental democracy work, it embarrassed a party that was trying to defeat Donald Trump by appealing to democratic foundations and principles. And most unfortunately, Iowa failed its own residents, who cycle after cycle had shown an incredible seriousness of purpose in fulfilling their unique role to choose a president. Iowans, more than in any other state, were comfortable attending numerous campaign events, fielding door knocks and phone calls from strangers day after day, and being immersed in a highly charged political atmosphere for what seemed like an eternity.
Iowans have had a proud caucus history of supporting upstart challengers who took on the status quo establishment, igniting fire to the campaigns of outsider candidates like Mr. Sanders, Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter. Progressives performed well in the state, in part because Iowans engaged deeply in getting to know the candidates and the arguments that they were making. Iowans seem almost intrinsically averse to having elite opinion instruct them on the way to vote. For their part, the good people of Iowa did nothing to earn this sanction and I mourn for them. We should only hope that their model of civic engagement will be heeded by the voters in the states that now have the opportunity to lead the nation.
But there’s another reason moving on from Iowa is the correct decision, and it dovetails with the second major, correct change Mr. Biden has proposed. The calendar makes the brilliant and important reform of elevating general election battleground states.
Nevada, New Hampshire, Georgia and then Michigan would all hold early February elections to help narrow and winnow the Democratic field. All four of these states have the distinction of being among the 10 closest states in the 2020 presidential election.
Why does it matter that general election battlegrounds are placed so early in the process? This is a Democratic team effort to invest in voter outreach, voter contact and voter enthusiasm at a much earlier stage, for a longer period, with more resources. The icing on the cake just happens to be that those battleground primary voters also get to select the nominee that they think could best win their critical state in November.
The ultimate goal of this process is to win; the Biden reform proposal honors that by moving these four key states, from different regions of the country with their collectively diverse electorates, to the front of the line. And if that’s all it did, we could wrap up this essay here and declare victory.
But the Biden nomination calendar contains a fundamental, dooming flaw: the replacement of Iowa with South Carolina as the first state. The change is comical, if it weren’t tragic.
We all know why South Carolina got the nod. President Biden, Representative Jim Clyburn and many of his top supporters were buoyed by their campaign’s comeback in February 2020 when the state delivered Mr. Biden his first victory of the season — and a big one at that. The media attention from that victory, and the consolidation of the Democratic field that it yielded, helped catapult him to winning the majority of the following Super Tuesday states. And when Covid spread through the nation shortly after, the rest of the primary contests were effectively quarantined and Mr. Biden iced his victory. None of that story is a reason to put South Carolina first, however.
South Carolina is not a battleground state: Mr. Trump carried it by double digits in 2020. It is way more ideologically and culturally conservative than our party and our nation. And the state is not trending in any way toward the Democratic Party. Just two years ago, we witnessed Jaime Harrison — now the D.N.C. chair — spend the eye-popping sum of $130 million to try to defeat Senator Lindsey Graham. After outraising and outspending Mr. Graham, Mr. Harrison still lost the 2020 Senate race decisively. Let’s not compel all other Democratic campaigns to waste more money that could be better spent elsewhere. If we really want to pick a diverse, socio-economic primary electorate, look to South Carolina’s neighbor to the north — an actual battleground state.
It bears repeating: Being first is a special honor. The state chosen for the task is rewarded in myriad ways. Iowa’s economy has benefited greatly over the years from the high level of campaign spending and travel. Aware of the process’s economic power, many of our Democratic campaigns employed union-friendly hotels, restaurants and vendors when we were active in Iowa. Good luck finding that in South Carolina, one of the fiercest anti-union, anti-labor states in the country. In fact, South Carolina is already first in the nation at something that it shouldn’t be proud of — it is the lowest-density union state in America. It should thus never be in contention to be first in our calendar.
As a D.N.C. delegate, I get to vote on the reform plan. As long as South Carolina remains first, I will vote no. I will urge other delegates to do the same. Let’s honor the principal goal of the primary calendar: to pick strong Democratic nominees who best represent our values and our principles. We’re so close to getting this right — let’s fix it.
Faiz Shakir was presidential campaign manager for Bernie Sanders in 2020 and is the founder of More Perfect Union.
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