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Democrats Set to Vote on Overhauling Party’s Primary Calendar

PHILADELPHIA — Members of the Democratic National Committee are expected to vote on Saturday on a major overhaul of the Democratic primary process, a critical step in President Biden’s effort to transform the way the party picks its presidential nominees, and one that would upend decades of American political tradition.

For years, Democratic nominating contests have begun with the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, a matter of immense pride in those states and a source of political identity for many highly engaged residents.

But amid forceful calls for a calendar that better reflects the racial diversity of the Democratic Party and of the country — and after Iowa struggled in 2020 to deliver results — Democrats are widely expected to endorse a proposal that would start the 2024 Democratic presidential primary circuit in South Carolina, the state that resuscitated Mr. Biden’s once-flailing candidacy, on Feb. 3. It would be followed by New Hampshire and Nevada on Feb. 6, Georgia on Feb. 13 and then Michigan on Feb. 27.

“This is a significant effort to make the presidential primary nominating process more reflective of the diversity of this country, and to have issues that will determine the outcome of the November election part of the early process,” said Representative Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who has vigorously pushed for moving up her state’s primary.

President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Many prominent Democrats have been adamant that the committee should defer to Mr. Biden’s preference on the primary calendar changes.Credit…Al Drago for The New York Times

It’s a proposed calendar that in many ways rewards the racially diverse states that propelled Mr. Biden to the presidency in 2020.

But logistical challenges to fully enacting it will remain even if the committee signs off on the plan, a move that was recommended by a key party panel in December. And resistance to the proposal has been especially fierce in New Hampshire, where officials have vowed to hold the first primary anyway, whatever the consequences.

The Democrats’ Primary Calendar

A plan spearheaded by President Biden could lead to a major overhaul of the party’s presidential primary process in 2024.

  • Demoting Iowa: Democrats are moving to reorder the primaries by making South Carolina — instead of Iowa — the first nominating state, followed by Nevada and New Hampshire, Georgia and then Michigan.
  • A New Chessboard: President Biden’s push to abandon Iowa for younger, racially diverse states is likely to reward candidates who connect with the party’s most loyal voters.
  • Obstacles to the Plan: Reshuffling the early-state order could run into logistical issues, especially in Georgia and New Hampshire.
  • An Existential Crisis: Iowa’s likely dethronement has inspired a rush of wistful memories and soul-searching among Democrats there.

New Hampshire, a small state where voters are accustomed to cornering candidates in diners and intimate town hall settings, has long held the first primary as a matter of state law.

New Hampshire Republicans, who control the governor’s mansion and state legislature, have stressed that they have no interest in changing that law, and many Democrats in the state have been just as forceful in saying that they cannot make changes unilaterally. Some have also warned that Mr. Biden could invite a primary challenge from someone camped out in the state, or stoke on-the-ground opposition to his expected re-election bid.

Mr. Biden has had a rocky political history with the state — he placed fifth there in 2020 — but he also has longtime friends and allies in New Hampshire, some of whom have written a letter expressing concerns about the proposal.

Attendees cheering after President Biden’s speech at the D.N.C.’s winter meeting. Georgia would move to Feb. 13 in the new primary calendar lineup.Credit…Al Drago for The New York Times

The D.N.C.’s Rules and Bylaws Committee has given New Hampshire until early June to work toward meeting the requirements of the proposed calendar, but some Democrats in the state have made clear that their position is not changing.

“They could say June, they could say next week, they could say in five years, but it’s not going to matter,” said former Gov. John Lynch, who signed the letter to Mr. Biden. “It’s like asking New York to move the Statue of Liberty from New York to Florida. I mean, that’s not going to happen. And it’s not going to happen that we’re going to change state law.”

But many prominent Democrats have been adamant that the committee should defer to Mr. Biden’s preference, reflecting his standing as the head of the party.

“If he had called me and said, ‘Jim Clyburn, I’ve decided that South Carolina should not be in the preprimary window,’ I would not have liked that at all, but I damn sure would not oppose,” said Representative James E. Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat and close Biden ally. His state, under the new proposal, would zoom into the most influential position on the primary calendar, though Mr. Clyburn said he had personally been agnostic on the early-state order as long as South Carolina was part of the window.

D.N.C. rules demand consequences for any state that operates outside the committee-approved early lineup, including cuts to the number of pledged delegates and alternates for the state in question. New Hampshire Democrats have urged the D.N.C. not to punish the state, and party officials there hope the matter of sanctions is still up for some degree of discussion.

Candidates who campaign in such states could face repercussions as well, such as not receiving delegates from that particular state.

Such consequences would be far more relevant in a contested primary. Much of the drama around the calendar may effectively be moot if Mr. Biden runs again, as he has said he intends to do, and if he does not face a serious primary challenge.

Whether the president would campaign in New Hampshire if the state defied a D.N.C.-sanctioned calendar is an open question. Some Democrats have also questioned whether there will be an effort, if New Hampshire does not comply, to replace it with a different Northeastern state for regional representation.

Georgia Democrats have also received an extension until June to work toward hosting a primary under the new calendar lineup, but they face their own logistical hurdles.

Republicans have already agreed to an early primary calendar, keeping the order of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, and Republican National Committee rules make clear that states that jump the order will lose delegates.

Georgia’s primary date is determined by the secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, and officials from his office have stressed that they have no interest in holding two primaries or in risking losing delegates.

A Democratic National Committee meeting on Thursday in Philadelphia. Under the new plan, the 2024 Democratic presidential primary calendar would start in South Carolina.Credit…Timothy A. Clary/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

According to a letter from the leaders of the Rules and Bylaws Committee, Nevada, South Carolina and Michigan have met the committee’s requirements for holding early primaries.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan this week signed a bill moving up the state’s primary to Feb. 27. There are still questions regarding how quickly that could take effect, and how Republicans in the state may respond, but Democrats in the state have voiced confidence that the vote can be held according to the D.N.C.’s proposed calendar.

There has also been some resistance to the idea of South Carolina — a Republican-tilted state that is not competitive in presidential general elections — serving as the leadoff state, while others have strongly defended the idea of elevating it.

Regardless, the reshuffle may only be temporary: Mr. Biden has urged the Rules and Bylaws Committee to review the calendar every four years, and the committee has embraced steps to get that process underway.

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