Democrats move to make South Carolina, not Iowa, first voting state in primary system

The Democratic National Committee Rules and Bylaws Committee meets.
The Democratic National Committee Rules and Bylaws Committee discussed proposed changes to the primary system during a meeting Friday in Washington.
(Nathan Howard / Associated Press)

Democratic officials voted Friday to remove Iowa as the leadoff state on the party’s presidential nominating calendar starting in 2024, and replace it with South Carolina — a dramatic shakeup championed by President Biden to better reflect the party’s diverse electorate.

The Democratic National Committee’s rule-making arm made the move to strip Iowa from the position it has held for five decades after technical problems sparked chaos and delayed the results of the state’s 2020 caucuses. The change also follows a long push by some top party leaders to start the process of choosing a presidential nominee in states that are less white, especially given that Black voters are Democrats’ most loyal electoral base.

Discussion on prioritizing diversity drew impassioned reaction at the committee gathering in Washington, with DNC Chair Jaime Harrison wiping away tears as member Donna Brazile suggested that Democrats had spent years failing to fight for Black voters:


“Do you know what it’s like to live on a dirt road? Do you know what it’s like to try to find running water that is clean?” she asked.

“Do you know what it’s like to wait and see if the storm is going to pass you by and your roof is still intact?” Brazile continued. “That’s what this is about.”

The committee approved moving South Carolina’s primary to Feb. 3 and having Nevada and New Hampshire vote three days later. Georgia would go the following week and Michigan two weeks after that.

Iowa has held the first-in-the-nation caucuses since 1972, followed by New Hampshire’s primary, first on the calendar since 1920. Nevada and South Carolina have gone next since the 2008 election.

The changes still have to be approved by a vote of the full DNC, probably early next year, but it is expected to follow the rule-making committee’s lead.

The revamped schedule could largely be moot for 2024 if Biden seeks a second term, but may remake Democratic presidential cycles after that. The president has said for months that he plans to run again, and White House aides have begun making staffing discussions for a reelection campaign, though no final decision has been made.


The DNC plans to revisit the primary calendar again before 2028.

Biden wrote in a letter to rules committee members on Thursday that the party should scrap “restrictive” caucuses altogether because their requirement for in-person participation can exclude working-class and other voters.

He also told party leaders privately that he’d like to see South Carolina go first to better ensure that voters of color aren’t marginalized as Democrats choose a presidential nominee.

Four of the five states now poised to start the party’s primary are presidential battlegrounds, meaning the eventual Democratic winner would be able to lay groundwork for the general election in key locales. That’s especially true for Michigan and Georgia, which both voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and for Biden in 2020. The exception is South Carolina, which hasn’t gone Democratic in a presidential race since 1976.

The first five states would vote before Super Tuesday, the day when much of the rest of the country holds primaries. That gives the early states outsize influence, as White House hopefuls struggling to raise money or gain political traction often drop out before visiting much of the rest of the country.

The Republican National Committee has already decided to keep its Iowa caucuses as the first contest in the GOP’s 2024 presidential primary, ensuring that the party’s White House hopefuls — which include Trump — continue to campaign there frequently.

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, South Carolina’s lone congressional Democrat and one of Biden’s top supporters in Congress, said the president called him Thursday to inform him of his push to move his state up in the calendar.

“I didn’t ask to be first,” Clyburn said. “It was his idea to be first.”

Clyburn’s endorsement in 2020 boosted Biden’s flagging presidential campaign just ahead of South Carolina’s primary, which he won big. That helped Biden shake off early losses in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada to eventually take the White House.

“He knows what South Carolina did for him, and he’s demonstrated that time and time again, by giving respect to South Carolina,” Clyburn said.

Still, the rules committee’s decision has faced serious resistance, with Democrats in some states pledging to ignore the changes altogether. That’s despite the panel approving language saying that states could lose all of their delegates to the party’s national convention if they attempt to violate the new rules.

Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire have noted that laws in their states mandate that they vote before others, and say they intend to abide by those laws rather than by DNC decrees. Only rules committee members from Iowa and New Hampshire objected to the proposal that passed Friday, with everyone else on the committee supporting it.

Scott Brennan, a rules committee member from Iowa, said that “small, rural states” like his “must have a voice in the presidential nominating process.”

“Democrats cannot forget about entire groups of voters in the heart of the Midwest without doing significant damage to the party in newer generations,” he warned

Nevada, with its heavily Latino population, initially balked at sharing the second-place slot with New Hampshire. Nevada committee member Artie Blanco’s voice cracked as she argued against the change.

“If we want to build a strong relationship with Latinos,” Blanco said, “then Nevada must stand alone on a date and not have to share that date.”

After more discussion, Blanco said she would support the new calendar. It was “not ideal” for her state to go the same day as another, she said, but “we accept what the will of the president is.”

Harrison, the DNC chair, said the new early-voting states will need to show they are working toward moving their primaries to those dates by early next year or risk losing their places. In some states, legislatures set primary dates; in others, that falls to secretaries of state or state party directors.

The DNC chair choked up after the vote, noting that South Carolina, the site of the first attack of the Civil War, was now in line to lead off his party’s primaries.

“This proposal reflects the best of our party as a whole,” Harrison said, “and it will continue to make our party and our country stronger.”