Democrats May Make January Presidential Primary Month

Times Staff Writer

Democrats are laying aside the debate over issues and philosophy and turning to something more prosaic -- rejiggering the political calendar -- as a way to boost the party’s White House prospects in 2008.

Barring a last-minute shift, Democratic leaders meeting here are expected to add Nevada and South Carolina to the states that hold early primaries, alongside perennials Iowa and New Hampshire.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Aug. 19, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 19, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Democratic calendar: An article in Thursday’s Section A on proposed changes in the political calendar said the Democratic National Committee was considering a plan to add Nevada and South Carolina to the states that hold early primaries, alongside Iowa and New Hampshire. Iowa’s vote is a caucus, and the proposal would make the Nevada contest a caucus as well.

The move is the main business at the Democratic National Committee’s summer meeting, which opened Thursday in Chicago. It would be the most significant change in the presidential nominating process in years, and hasten the front-loading that has already transformed the contest from a months-long slog into a sprint lasting just a few weeks.


Many political observers in Iowa and New Hampshire bitterly oppose the change; there is even talk of pushing their balloting into late 2007 to leapfrog any interlopers and preserve New Hampshire’s historic preeminence. The proposal also has produced more than a few knocks on Nevada and the louche life associated with Las Vegas.

“It is said that the Democratic Party has a moral values problem,” Ken Bode, a veteran political analyst now teaching at DePauw University in Indiana, wrote in a recent Indianapolis Star commentary. “Adding images of flying dice and spinning slot machines with the surrounding sex industry isn’t likely to help.”

But leaders of the national party appear undeterred.

“Including two more states will not only be good for our country, it will be good for our party and good for our nominee,” said Donna Brazile, a longtime Democratic strategist and one of the leading advocates for the calendar change. “It will be good for them to get out to other regions, rather than spending the next 18 months in two small states.”

Although Iowa and New Hampshire enjoy storied political histories, critics say the two lack the ethnic diversity and metropolitan texture needed to produce well-rounded presidential nominees. Roughly 95% of the populations of Iowa and New Hampshire are white, whereas nearly 30% of South Carolina residents are black, according to the most recent U.S. census data.

Moreover, Democrats are increasingly eyeing the West as a key battleground, following the party’s gains across the Rocky Mountain region in 2004.

With Nevada in the early mix, “Western issues will be more in focus than they have been in the past,” said Mike Stratton, a Colorado-based Democratic strategist, who served on the commission that recommended the scheduling changes set for a vote Saturday.


Winning just two or three more Western states, with Nevada and New Mexico the most promising, would put a Democrat in the White House in 2008, Stratton said.

After debating the matter at length last month, the party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee recommended elevating Nevada and South Carolina over several states bidding to join the early voting. The Iowa caucuses would open the nominating process on Jan. 14, 2008, followed five days later by caucuses in Nevada. New Hampshire would hold the first primary, on Jan. 22, 2008, followed a week later by South Carolina.

The Republican Party has its own rules for the nominating process, established at its 2004 national convention. States can hold nominating contests between Feb. 5 and July 28, 2008, and party spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said there would be no effort by the national GOP to coordinate with Democrats. “We let each state decide when they’ll be having their respective caucus or primary,” Schmitt said.

The move to squeeze Nevada between Iowa and New Hampshire has brought howls of protest, especially from New Hampshire, whose primary has been a preeminent event on the presidential nominating calendar since 1952. New Hampshire jealously guards its position: In the mid-1970s, under threat from other states eager for the limelight, legislators passed a law requiring at least a seven-day buffer between its primary and any “similar election.”

Democratic Party leaders said they would respect New Hampshire’s law by assigning Nevada a caucus, which has different rules than a primary.

But New Hampshire Secretary of State William M. Gardner said he saw little distinction. He is responsible for scheduling New Hampshire’s primary and intimated he would hold the contest in 2007 if needed to preserve the state’s mandatory cushion. “I’ve always ... set a time that would respect our tradition,” Gardner said from his Concord office this week. “And I intend to do it the same way I’ve done it.”


The prospect of an early Nevada vote has produced some less-than-flattering commentary. An editorial in New Hampshire’s Portsmouth Herald said Nevada was too sprawling for one-on-one campaigning, New Hampshire-style, and suggested many Nevadans lacked the sophistication to cut through candidates’ flimflam.

Shir Haberman, the paper’s managing editor for news, said his editorial was not meant to suggest that Nevadans were stupid, just disengaged. “You cannot become engaged in the course of two months, three months,” he said by telephone from Portsmouth.

Kirsten Searer, a spokeswoman for the Nevada Democratic Party, suggested Nevada’s critics were wrong to stereotype the state and its voters. “A successful candidate in Nevada will not be walking around the casinos,” Searer said. “He or she will be campaigning at coffee shops and rodeos, visiting the Democratic clubs and going to churches. We are so much more than the Las Vegas Strip.”