Column: Politics will never be the same when Democrats replace Iowa caucuses with South Carolina

President Biden gestures while holding a microphone.
President Biden has done his time in Iowa. The next Democratic front-runner will focus farther south.
(Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

Every presidential election year, when the pundits start buzzing about the Democrats’ nominee for president before Black voters have weighed in, that’s a lot like decorating for Thanksgiving — just something to do until the main event.

Iowa and New Hampshire — both more than 90% white — can only offer momentum to a presidential hopeful. The lion’s share of delegates come from districts with the highest concentration of Democrats, and those districts tend to be heavily populated by Black people. The last person to secure the nomination without Black support was Michael Dukakis, and he won only 10 states in the general election. Pretty sure no one wants to repeat that.

Opinion Columnist

LZ Granderson

LZ Granderson writes about culture, politics, sports and navigating life in America.

President Biden certainly doesn’t. This week he proposed, and the Democratic National Committee agreed, to shuffle the order of nominating contests so that South Carolina holds the first primary, followed by Nevada and New Hampshire, then Georgia and then Michigan. That lineup empowers a different demographic.


While liberals in Iowa and New Hampshire are probably disappointed to learn they will no longer kick off primary season, the truth is the process should begin where most of the Democrats are. That’s not to pooh-pooh the power of those two states. Since 1972 only three candidates secured the nomination without winning at least one of them — George McGovern, Bill Clinton and Joe Biden. But a lot has changed over 50 years, and the progressive party has been slow to reflect that change, something Biden alluded to while expressing his support of the new schedule: “Black voters in particular have been the backbone of the Democratic Party but have been pushed to the back of the early primary process.”

Elevating South Carolina to first while adding Nevada to second (alongside New Hampshire) not only increases minority participation in the early stages of the primary but also reshapes candidate talking points and ensures the issues Latino and Black voters care most about aren’t treated as garnish.

This is also an opportunity for minority voters to have greater influence on how the media talks about candidates. Think about it: President Clinton nicknamed himself the “comeback kid” after finishing second in New Hampshire, but had the primary started in more diverse states, Clinton most likely would have entered New Hampshire as the favorite. He earned roughly 80% of the Black vote in the South on Super Tuesday, all but vanquishing Paul Tsongas, who had finished first in New Hampshire.

And of course there’s Biden himself, who many thought was done after disappointing showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. He not only went on to receive the most votes in American history, but also had one of history’s most successful midterms for a sitting president. His campaign was never “done.” It’s just that the pundits started opining about the favorite candidates before the “backbone of the Democratic Party” had a say.

That’s changed.

Now comes the fun part.

If Biden decides not to seek reelection, the field must focus on courting Latino and Black voters at the beginning of the process, as opposed to later. Candidates who emerge victorious from South Carolina and Nevada won’t just have buzz but a significant number of delegates. That helps with fundraising and media coverage.

Because of the schedule change, a different kind of candidate may emerge. Someone who must address issues such as immigration beyond the same old tired platitudes but also without alienating working-class white voters. When the first two states in the nominating season are more than 90% white, it’s easier to kick off a campaign without mentioning systemic racism. Now there ought to be no campaign without antiracism being part of a candidate’s platform.


The players may ultimately be the same, but with the rules’ change, the game is very different.