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Biden calls for a big shakeup in Democrats' presidential nominating calendar

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

President Biden wants to change which states get a first crack at nominating Democrats to the White House. States that hold primaries sooner have an early influence over who becomes the party's nominee. Biden announced Thursday he wants South Carolina to be first in line. He's calling for the swing states of Georgia and Michigan to be bumped up. And he wants Iowa to relinquish the coveted top spot. Joining us now from Iowa is Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio. Clay, how much does it matter which states nominate presidential candidates first?

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: So this was something he didn't release publicly but was presented to members of the Democratic National Committee yesterday. This was ahead of a key DNC meeting on this starting this morning. Now, the plan was confirmed to me by a DNC member from Iowa. And, yeah, the proposal would be South Carolina first, then Nevada and New Hampshire, then Georgia and Michigan. And then South Carolina has a sizable Black population. And, of course, it really saved Biden's campaign in the 2020 primary. Now, Biden had lost the first three contests, you might remember, pretty badly before winning easily in South Carolina. And then he also released a letter saying that Democrats must ensure that voters of color have a voice in choosing, quote, "our nominee much earlier in the process."

MARTÍNEZ: And that's been a key critique of Iowa's spot as first state up.

MASTERS: Yeah. I mean, critics have pointed to Iowa being an overwhelmingly white state for some time, along with New Hampshire. But that's just one criticism that's been leveled. In 2020, you might remember, the Iowa caucuses had this smartphone app. The reporting results were jumbled. It wasn't tested, didn't work. And no one seemed to win on caucus night. Generally, critics say caucuses are also just not very accessible. And it's not the competitive swing state that Iowa once was. I mean, Republicans dominated here in the midterm. Though, I would add, South Carolina is a red state as well. But at the outset of this year, members on this committee that set the calendar seemed to have it out for Iowa, saying, you know, we want states going early that are competitive, diverse. And we favor accessibility over tradition.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And I think it's obvious that states have an interest in maintaining their hold on these early contests. So what do Iowans say about Biden's proposal?

MASTERS: Well, the biggest argument Iowa seems to have going for them is the low cost to run a campaign here in Iowa. You know, it's regularly said this state doesn't pick the candidate. It serves to winnow the field. You might remember Obama won Iowa in '08 despite his small budget and says that kind of launched him to the White House. And as recently as 2016, Bernie Sanders started with a pretty bare-bones campaign starting out. And that gave Hillary Clinton a run for her money by the end of it. Scott Brennan is the only Iowan on the DNC committee. And he says people should be looking at the entire current window and how it results in popular vote wins.

SCOTT BRENNAN: Joe Biden didn't win Iowa. He got pummeled in New Hampshire, didn't do particularly well in Nevada. And he won South Carolina and became the nominee. That's how the process should work.

MASTERS: And, A, I should add, Iowa Democrats have proposed a lot of changes to the caucuses meant to kind of make them more accessible for people to participate. We won't get into the nitty-gritty of that, though.

MARTÍNEZ: One factor, though, in these discussions is that the states have specific laws about when they're supposed to hold the primary contests. So how does that work with the Republican-led state there?

MASTERS: Iowa does have a law on the books that keeps its caucuses first. Republican leaders here say they're not going to change anything to accommodate national Democrats. Republicans will still go in the traditional order, they tell me, for 2024. But some Democrats have told NPR that these state laws aren't all that important because the party could just not seat delegates from certain states. And I should state that New Hampshire Democrats released a statement last night saying, the DNC did not give it the first in the nation primary. And the DNC is not going to take it away. So this is going to be interesting as we go into these talks today.

MARTÍNEZ: Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters. Clay, thanks.

MASTERS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Clay Masters
Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.